Andrew Smith’s investigation of the Apollo aftermath

"Where do you go after you’ve been to the Moon?"

This question launches Andrew Smith’s investigation into the afterglow of the Apollo program. Meeting with the Moonwalkers, Smith discovers that their lives all followed very different paths since their lunar adventures. "I found myself slipping outside to stare at the Moon in a way I hadn’t since childhood, trying to imagine the tense drift towards it, the ecstatic return," writes Smith. "I wondered whether the Moonwalkers had reconciled themselves to being Earthbound; whether they’d made peace with our world or continued to mourn their strangled hopes. I wanted to know what kind of people they’d become and what they’d learnt; how they felt about the weird trip now and whether they thought it had changed them."

Sending men to the Moon certainly changed the public perception of life on our own planet, thanks to the astronauts’ photographs of the Earth looking like an illuminated blue marble suspended in the deep black emptiness of space. Smith therefore doesn’t just limit himself to interviewing the complex Type-A personalities of the astronauts — he talks to various people still involved or deeply interested in the Moon program, including Apollo’s loudest skeptic, Bart Sibrel (who, as a result of his obnoxious badgering, was socked on the jaw by astronaut Buzz Aldrin). Smith shows how our culture – in everything from politics to pop music – both shaped and has been shaped by the Apollo program. While sending men to the Moon is often discussed as a relic of the past, it still affects us today, and for many, it holds the key to our future in space.

One of the most famous photographs of the Apollo era. The view home.
Credit: NASA

Smith’s book is an engrossing read, full of humor, insight, and appreciation for the vision and outright zaniness that marked the only human mission to another world. On its face, the goal of putting a man on the Moon was irrational. The danger and expense of launching men into space and then having them land on the lunar surface was a leap of faith, a combination of romantic adventure and Cold War competition. Yet despite its impractical nature, it worked, not just as a single stunt, but again and again. Perhaps the most remarkable feat in this most remarkable of goals is that all the Moonwalkers survived their missions, and were able to once again walk on the solid ground of Earth.

The following is an excerpt from "Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth," due to be published on August 16, 2005. This excerpt appears with permission by HarperCollins Publishers.

"Flying six months after Apollo 11, in December 1969, the Apollo 12 crew of (Dick) Gordon, commander Pete Conrad and Lunar Module pilot Alan Bean loved each other, really loved each other, like brothers. They drove matching gold Corvettes, which Conrad got them a deal on, and they always gave the impression that while what they were doing was important and dangerous, it was also fabulous. And fun. Even thirty years after, an acquaintance who spent time with them just before Conrad’s freak death on that motorcycle describes the closeness of soul mates.

Some had expected that Apollo 12 would be the first mission to land on the Moon and there must be a little part of everyone involved that wishes gap-toothed, wise-ass, super-smart Pete Conrad could have been the first human to set foot on it and that his modest and engaging crew, who carried none of the darkness we’ll find in Apollo 11, could have been our eyes and ears there. Still, where Armstrong got to be the first one to stand on another celestial body, Conrad has the more joyous distinction of being the first to fall over on one. By all accounts, he was one of a kind.

Gordon and Conrad had roomed together when they were flying carriers in the Navy. They’d also been in space before, aboard Gemini 11 in September 1966, during which Gordon became the fourth American to walk in space, an experience which, under favorable circumstances, seems as moving as an astronaut can have, like being born a second time. That wasn’t Gordon’s experience, though.

Tiny earth, a planet that could be blotted out with a lunar astronaut’s thumb.
Credit: NASA

During his walk (Extra Vehicular Activity, or EVA in NASA-speak), he had some tasks to perform, one of which was to attach a tether to an Agena rocket with which he and Conrad had rendezvoused and docked. Unfortunately, no one had foreseen that in the weightless conditions, he would have no way of clinging to the Agena in order to accomplish this and by the time he had done it, he was blinded by sweat and close to incoherent with exhaustion. Conrad feared that Gordon hadn’t strength left to make it back and the unwritten rule was that in such an event, he would have to cut his friend adrift and come home bitterly, wretchedly, alone. Through an immense act of will, Gordon got close enough to the Gemini for the other man to haul him in, but it was a close-run thing. Conrad later said that, of all the situations he faced in space, this was the one that scared him the most.

Then there was the lightning incident during the launch of Apollo 12, in which the Saturn rocket was hit twice, turning the cockpit into a casino of warning lights and alarms, as the electrical system went off-line. Many people think that the craft launched into the angry sky because President Richard Nixon, feeling confident after the success of 11 that 12 wouldn’t blow up and embarrass him, had flown to the Cape to watch. But the crew kept their cool (Conrad’s pulse rate didn’t even rise) and Bean found an obscure switch that brought power back to the cabin. Disaster had been averted – perhaps: Houston would remain concerned that the Command Module parachute-release mechanism had been damaged. After much discussion, it was decided to continue to the Moon anyway. If parachutes didn’t open before splashdown on the way back, the crew were mincemeat wherever they’d been or not been in the meantime. Let lunar landing be a last cigarette before the cosmic firing squad."

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