"Moondust" is an interesting book. Having some notable errors of fact, it nonetheless captures much that is important in the popular conception of the Moon landings. Part memoir, journalist Andrew Smith began his quest to understanding the meaning of Apollo in 1999 when he interviewed Charlie Duke, a member of the Apollo 16 crew, and was touched by his admission that "Now there's only nine of us," following the death of Pete Conrad in a motorcycle accident. Smith realized, as did Duke, that not too far in the future none of the moonwalkers would be alive. At that time Apollo would truly be an event in history known only from a distance.
This set Smith on a course to interview the remaining Apollo astronauts, seeking to learn how their lives had changed because of the experience. This book is a remarkable statement of the lives of this elite group of Americans. Some remain household names, such as Neil Armstrong, who has carried his celebrity experience with both dignity and honor. Many are unknown to all except the space community. Some are garrulous and easy to talk to, others are aloof and guarded. Smith found that all were fundamentally changed by the Apollo experience.
Smith's discussion of Buzz Aldrin was especially fascinating. He spent considerable time with Aldrin and talked with him about his life, work, and dreams. Since returning to Earth on Apollo 11 Aldrin struggled with alcoholism, a divorce, and an unending desire to open the space frontier. He has constantly sought to find ways to continue his status as a leader in the spaceflight world. At a fundamental level, we learn in "Moondust," Aldrin was like so many other true believers in space exploration. Apollo and its promise of humanity moving out into the solar system excited him. Aldrin was the epitome of Smith's quote from journalist Jim Oberg, "A lot of guys at NASA thought that the goal was space exploration and colonisation of the Universe, and they all had their hearts broken" (p. 296). Political leaders enthused spaceflight advocates with Apollo only to "pull the rug out from under them." Those who believe that humanity's future lies in space, such as Aldrin, have spent the last thirty years trying to deal with some believe was a betrayal.
Most interesting, Andrew Smith offers observations on the role of Apollo in the modern world. He wrote that "Apollo seems to me to be the most perfect imaginable expression, embodiment, symbol, of the twentieth century's central contradiction: namely, that the more we put our faith in reason and its declared representatives, that the more irrational our world became" (p. 295). As only one example among many, he noted that our science and technology has made our lives more abundant than ever but our dissatisfaction has never been greater. "It's a cautionary tale about that most fundamentally human of human tragedies," he writes, "wanting something so badly that you end up destroying it" (p. 295). For Smith, the success of Apollo "killed `manned' deep-space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next dour decades and probably many more" (p. 295).
Finally, Smith comments on the reason for undertaking Apollo. What was the United States trying to prove? Certainly it was a cold war initiative; a surrogate for war. But beyond that, he finds an answer in the motives of John Kennedy. "JFK wanted something to capture the global imagination, and to excite his own people, and he found it" (p. 297). Smith asserts that any discussion of the practical results of Apollo are irrelevant because it was never about practicality. Astronaut Joseph Allen said it best in a comment reported in "Moondust": "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the Moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the one important reason" (p. 297). As Smith concludes, "For all of Apollo's technological wonder, it was as primitive as song. It meant nothing. And everything....Was Apollo worth all the effort and expense? If it had been about the Moon, the answer would be no, but it wasn't, it was about the Earth. The answer is yes" (pp. 297-98).
There is much to ponder in this book. It may be read on several levels. There are interesting and entertaining stories from the astronauts and what they have been doing since the end of Apollo. There are observations on spaceflight-past, present, and future. But there are also efforts to situate the Apollo program into the larger rubric of modern society and to understand its relationship to humanity as it stands at the threshold of the twenty-first century. Some of what Smith writes is depressing, as in the case of the lost promise that was Apollo. Some of it is exhilarating because of what Apollo taught humanity about itself. All of it is worth considering.