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May Books 10) Moondust

10) Moondust, by Andrew Smith

After reading James Hansen's biography of Neil Armstrong, I mused that "If I want to read about the wider meaning of his mission and of space exploration, I will have to look somewhere else. And I will." While Andrew Chaikin's A Man On The Moon was a perfectly decent narrative history, it didn't really answer for me the key question, what did it all mean?

Moondust is superb. Smith tells the story of his efforts to track down the nine living men who have walked on the moon, presenting it as a chronological narrative, one by one, with contributory material from other interested parties (Reg Turnhill, Richard Gordon, Bill the dentist in Carson City, Charles Duke's wife Dotty, etc). But he integrates also reflections on how it seemed at the time, what was going on in politics, how the Apollo program affected and was affected by the popular culture of the day.

He gets much more from the five surviving LM pilots than from the four surviving commanders. Alan Bean in particular comes across as the kind of guy you would like to know. Buzz Aldrin, given a chance to tell his side of the story, seems much more human than in Hansen's biography of Armstrong. Armstrong himself proves elusive - two conversations at conferences, followed by a series of email exchanges. The most elusive of all is the disgraced David Scott, in hiding not so much because of the decades old "stamps affair" but because of his fling with British newsreader Anna Ford (which I had completely forgotten about).

I guess I found the book particularly appealing because Smith reflects several times that he is about the same age as the astronauts were when they carried out the moon landings. He is four years older than me, and wrote most of the book three to four years ago, so I felt a particular connection with him, and with them, while reading it. But I think it is written well enough to appeal even to people who are not approaching or just past their fortieth birthdays.

It would have been nice to have had some photographs, but Smith's visual descriptions are so evocative that perhaps it's not necessary, and anyway there is no shortage of pictures of the relevant individuals on the Web. An excellent book.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 21st, 2006 03:30 pm (UTC)
Yes, I enjoyed that one - most books that bother trying to flesh out the characters of the astronauts (even Wolfe, to some extent) paint them as alpha males, straight arrows who were all about God and the Program on duty and "maintaining an even strain" after hours; Moon Dust is, I think, the best look at them as individuals rather than instances of the genus Test Pilot.

Reg Turnill's The Moonlandings is curiously personal, too, with a lot of interesting material about his personal relationships with the astronauts and engineers.
May. 21st, 2006 04:02 pm (UTC)
I read this last month, and really really liked it. I've never totally got the appeal that the moon landings and space exploration have in a way that many science fiction fans do, but this did such an amazing job of giving me the sense of wonder that we went and the sadness that we might never go back that I think I get it now. And I'm going to go and search out more books about the space programme.
May. 22nd, 2006 08:43 am (UTC)
From Paul Cornell
I love A Man On The Moon, and the TV series it inspired, From The Earth To The Moon. David Scott is hardly in hiding, that sounds like a literary conceit on the part of this author. Scott has written two books about the missions himself, the first one of which I've read is excellent (and he does speak about the stamps business, which seems very small potatoes). So I think it's probably more a case of each author protecting their material.
May. 22nd, 2006 09:25 am (UTC)
Re: From Paul Cornell
Smith says that Scott basically wouldn't reply to his letters. He does give a reasonable write-up of Scott's second book, the one co-authored with Leonov, but says that Leonov's bits are more interesting.

I entirely agree that the stamps business should have been no big deal, but it became a major media and political event back in the day, and I don't think the astronauts got any advice from anyone on how to handle it from their side.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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