Saturday, October 08, 2005

Andrew Smith's Moondust: In search of the Men Who Fell to Earth

I was six years old when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. I must be one of the few people my age or older who doesn't remember it. I suspect my parents didn't let me stay up, or if they did, I didn't understand what was going on and it went over my head. I do, however, remember later landings. The nuns at my school brought in a TV and we got a break from schoolwork to watch some astronaut -- I forget who -- sing "Walking on the Moon One Day," while skipping along in low gravity. It seems like a dream, barely believable.

That dream-like quality of a unique period in history is the focus on Andrew Davis's Moondust -- a book-length essay about his effort to track down the remaining nine people on the planet who have viewed earth from deep space. Most, it turns out, were profoundly changed by the experience, which is unsurprising. What do you do after you've been to the moon? Neil Armstong became essentially a recluse. Alan Bean is spending the rest of his life trying to recapture the scenes on the moon with oil paints. Edgar Mitchell is pushing an almost New Age view of the universe. Buzz Aldrin is advocating a return to deep space. But that's just scratching the surface. Davis goes deeper and tries to understand what the race to the moon really meant, not just to the astronauts, but the rest of us as well.

A couple things struck me the most in the book: First, it's amazing just how seat-of-the-pants the moon trips were. The whole enterprise was incredibly dangerous. Armstrong was, NASA calculated, two-fifth of a second away from death during a test of the lander, for example, and barely wrestled control of a tumbling spacecraft in the Gemini program. Most of the landings would have ended in disaster if it wasn't for quick work by the experienced test pilots, facing situations they weren't trained for and that the engineers hadn't anticipated. Second, the whole program seems to have been designed as temporary from the start. At each stage, engineers abandoned more enduring technology -- even cheaper ones -- for expediency. "Spam in a can," is what the astronauts called the method NASA chose to blast humans into space on towers of explosives. They abandoned the promising X-plane program and used a lunar-orbit process (instead of an earth-orbiting launcher), for example. And all but one of the astronauts were non-scientists, so relatively little science was accomplished, nor intended. They say we no longer have the guts for a deep space program, but we didn't really have the guts then either. It was political, and once the politics went away, the moon program did too. What's left is a bureaucracy sustaining itself with projects of little purpose. We're doing good science these days, but with robots, not people.

At the same time I was reading the book, the BBC was running a series called the Space Race, which focused on the political battle between the U.S. and Russia. It reinforced the impression of danger, describing some truly horrific accidents in the Russian program that wasn't made public for decades. The U.S. has been relatively lucky. And it is luck -- the manned flights were done as soon as nerves of steel could stand, with barely tested parts wielded by incredibly brave people. But the TV series ended as sadly. The participants expected it to go on -- to Mars, colonies on the moon. Instead, we looked, and then ran home.

Cost is one, but not the only, problem. The nine years of the Apollo program cost less than one year of the Vietnam war at its height. The other problem is a lack of a goal. Why send people to such a hostile place? Davis, in Moondust, is a skeptic, but by the end he's won over in an unexpected way. (I'll leave you to discover that yourself.)

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