Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Books: "Moondust" on Apollo 11

Moondust: In Search Of The Men Who Fell To Earth
By Andrew Smith
Harper Perennial; paperback; $16.99

This July marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and to commemorate it, there is a new edition of journalist Andrew Smith’s Moondust.

A thrilling blend of history, reportage, and memoir, this landmark work rekindles the hopeful excitement of an incandescent hour in America's past when anything seemed possible as it captures the bittersweet heroism of those who risked everything to hurl themselves out of the known world, and who were never again quite able to accept its familiar bounds.

The Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s have been called the last optimistic acts of the twentieth century. Twelve astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, made this greatest of all journeys and were indelibly marked by it, for better or for worse.

This updated version comes with a new Afterword that tells the fascinating story of twelve astronauts who ventured to space, and his interviews with nine of the surviving men from this elite group to find their answers to the question "Where do you go after you've been to the Moon?"

Moondust is full of remarkable history on the men and their mission, such as what Smith writes about Buzz Aldrin, "He was the only son of a vaultingly ambitious oilman of Swedish stock, a wartime colonel who made for a stern and remote father, and a mother whose maiden name - and you couldn't have made this up - was Marion Moon. They were well off, and he recalls the chief influence on his young life as having been a black housekeeper named Alice. "Her enthusiasm for my world made it grow, and more by demonstration than by words she taught me tolerance,' he says in a now out-of-print autobiography. At first he was an average student, but averageness was not well received by his father. He claims never to have been socially adept, but by the time he left high school, his grades were good enough to get him to West Point, where he excelled academically and athletically. He shot down two MIG-15s in Korea, returned to take a doctorate in Manned Space Rendezvous at MIT and joined NASA's third group of astronauts in 1963.
"Nevertheless, at the start of 1966 Aldrin was one of the seven from twenty-seven active Astronaut Corps members who hadn't been allocated a seat on Gemini, making his chances of flying Apollo look very slim indeed. Feeling himself to be an 'off man out' and suspecting a Navy bias in crew selection, he tried pressing his case with (Deke) Slayton, but that seemed to make matters worse - until fate intervened in the most bitterly equivocal fashion. Adjoining the Aldrin garden in Houston was that of Charlie Bassett and family. the women of the households were friends and the children played together, while Bassett and Buzz got along fine. But one February morning Bassett and another corps member, Elliott See, took off to St. Louis in a T-58 trainer jet. The pair were scheduled to fly Gemimi 9 and were going to visit the capsule, but on their approach, with the weather worsening, they misjudged their rate of descent and ended up hitting the roof of the hangar where the spacecraft was being assembled. Both men were killed and in the ensuing reshuffle of seats, Aldrin wound up with the very last place in the program, on Gemini 12.
"Buzz seized the opportunity with both hands. Charged with following the near fatally flawed spacewalks of Gene Cernan and Dick Gordon, and with proving that tasks beyond merely wafting about could be safely performed in space - because if they couldn't, Apollo was in trouble - he disdained Cernan's view that 'brute force' was the answer to working in zero gravity. Instead, he conducted an incisive analysis of the problems and showed great invention in designing tools and techniques that would make working in space easier. The upshot was that, where death shadowed previous EVAs, this one went like clockwork. Now Apollo was on and (Chris) Kraft, Slayton, er al. could hardly fail to recognize such application and intelligence. A friend's gift of death had let Buzz in and if the engineers' nickname for him, 'Dr. Rendezvous' contained a hint of sarcasm, it hardly mattered anymore. He was names to the backup crew of Apollo 8, which led to the 'prime' crew of 11. He still didn't expect to be first to the Moon, until one day Slayton called the crew into his office and announced, 'You're it.' Not wanting to break the news to his wife over the phone, he waited until she picked him up in a station wagon full of dirty laundry later in the day. According to him, he told her in a Laundromat off NASA Road 1. He claims to have spent the long Fourth of July weekend before the flight dismantling and reassembling a dishwasher."

Moondust is one of the best tributes you will read about one of America's greatest achievements, and Smith writes it in a very novelistic, conversational style that makes it quite enjoyable.

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