For my senior seminar at university, I took a class in New Journalism – the movement that started in the 1960s that led to more narrative non-fiction and the acknowledgement or realization that pure objectivity is impossible. In narrative non-fiction, the writer is often a character in the work. It’s still factual, but the research process, and the creative process, is as much a part of the story as the research findings. Moon Dust and the other book I’ve finished recently (The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, blog post to come), are very much a part of the narrative non-fiction category of writing. The story of the writer is explicitly a part of these books, even more so, if I recall, than the gonzo journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Moon Dust interweaves the stories of the surviving Moonwalkers with Andrew Smith’s own memories and feelings about the Apollo program. He never pretends that this is an objective work of biography or technical detail; it’s very much a personal project for him. There are biographical details of the astronauts, of course, and a bit of technical information and history about the space program, but it’s almost more a philosophical book. Smith realizes by the end that the greatest outcome of Apollo is the opportunity it gave us as a species to look back on Earth, to reassess our place in the universe and our place in the world. The main question of the book is “what next?” What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon? How do you follow that up? How do we follow it up as a species, as a culture? Smith talked to all, or nearly all, the surviving Moonwalkers and a couple of the Command Module pilots, to try to answer that question.
Twelve men walked on the moon; nine of them are still living. No one has left Earth orbit since 1972 with Apollo 17. Eventually – and sooner than we might want or expect – no one living will have walked on the moon. No one will know what it is like to look back at Earth and see it complete and whole, hanging in space. It is almost sad: my generation especially knows the successes of the space program only through history. We didn’t live through Apollo, so we don’t really know the excitement and adventure of the moon landings. We know the current space program more through its failures or its trivia. We don’t hear about the successes anymore – they’ve become normal or commonplace. We only hear about NASA when things go wrong – Challenger, or Columbia. Or the last flight of the space shuttle. We only hear news about people going to space when it’s unusual or seemingly ridiculous, like the “space tourists”. Being an astronaut is no longer something that most people dream of and strive for; those who do often realize that they were born in the wrong time for it.
Like most people, I only vaguely know the names of the astronauts in the “middle” Apollo missions. I know the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, of course. There are a few others that I’d heard of because they feature in Apollo 13. But some of them I had to look up as I was reading. And they are the ones that are the most interesting in this book. Neil Armstrong is notoriously reticent, Buzz Aldrin has a reputation for being wacky (although that didn’t really come through in this presentation of him); Gene Cernan is parlaying his “last man on the moon” status into lobbyist pressure for a return. Those are things you might expect, I suppose. The ones I most enjoyed were the ones who’d adapted their experiences into other areas: Alan Bean, who’s now a painter; Edgar Mitchell, who seems to still be living out his emotional “epiphany” from his moonwalk.
The writing in this book is quite conversational, and quick because of that. I only marked a few passages, and those near the end, just because of the way I read it (patchily, during breaks at my current job); there weren’t any moments where the writing left me skeptical. I’d definitely classify it as a good book, in part because my reading list afterwards has grown. I feel like I’ve gotten the end of the story – what happened next – but there are gaps. I really want to read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe now (another classic of the narrative non-fiction/new journalism style), and I want to know more about the Command Module pilots. (I can only name two CM pilots – Michael Collins from 11, and Ken Mattingly from 16. And I only really know Ken Mattingly from Apollo 13 and because he came to speak at USD a couple years after the movie came out. He’s now one of my favourites, of course.) But now that I know what happened “next” – as much as anyone can, I think – I want to know more. What was it like being in the space program? What was it like not landing on the moon? What are the stories of the other missions? Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 have become fairly well-known, but what was it like for the other ones? What was it like at Mission Control? And that’s what a good non-fiction book should do: give you information but also expand your horizons. (and your reading list, apparently…..)