Nate: Today, we’re discussing the book, “Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth” by Andrew Smith. I have to say, Dave, I found the concept of this book to be fascinating. Smith, after having some discussion with a couple of the astronauts who went to the moon, and after hearing of the death of Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12, starts to give some serious thought to the uniqueness of making a journey to the moon. He realizes that only a handful of human beings have ever gone to, and walked, on the moon, that this group of men is advancing in age, and that their stories would definitely be worth hearing.
Dave: That’s right. So he decides to talk to all of the astronauts who went to the moon, at least the ones who agreed to be interviewed for the book, and talks with them about not only going to the moon, but more importantly what it was like to come back.
Nate: And that is what makes this book so interesting. What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon? How do you deal with everyday life and people who have no understanding of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and what it means to you?
Dave: It’s a part of the journey to the moon that no one seems to have talked about in much detail before, but Smith does an excellent job of bringing it out, and letting us get to know each of the astronauts who have walked where few have.
Nate: And each astronaut is so different. One of the most fascinating parts of this book was how differently each one has dealt with the awesome experience of walking on the moon, and then returning to Earth. From the mystical Edgar Mitchell to the artistic Alan Bean. From the gung ho company man, Gene Cernan, to the somewhat odd Buzz Aldrin who always seems to be battling conspiracy theorists. Each one has dealt with their experience differently, and the stories are fascinating.
Dave: Most of the guys who walked on the moon aren’t household names either. Other than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, how many others can most people name off the top of their heads. They’re fairly unknown. I met Gene Cernan once at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, and he enjoyed telling me who he was and talking to me about his experience. I think that for some of the astronauts, it’s nice to talk to someone who has a genuine interest and wants to listen.
Nate: Now, I wasn’t alive when any of this was going on, but you were a kid, probably roughly the same age the author, Andrew Smith, was at the time. He weaves some of his childhood memories into the book as well, talking about his experiences and thoughts when all of this was actually happening in the sixties and seventies. Were you able to relate to that?
Dave: Definitely. Most people can tell you where they were when we landed on the moon. I was in left field playing in little league when it was announced over the PA. But I think it’s interesting how the Cold War fueled the space race. Back then everyone was paranoid about the Soviet Union getting to the moon before us and the potential military consequences of that, so no one was ever worried about the cost.
Nate: Yeah, the big problem today with space exploration is cost. But back then most people just thought it was a necessary expense in order to keep up with, or ahead of, the Soviets.
Dave: That’s another thing about this book. Smith doesn’t shy away from the tremendous amount of spending that was done on the space program, and sincerely wonders aloud whether or not it was all worth it. In the end, though, the space race was something that unified the country in the midst of the social upheaval of the sixties and early seventies.
Nate: Another thing Smith doesn’t shy away from in the book is the controversy surrounding Wernher von Braun.
Dave: That’s for sure. He makes it clear that while most Americans think of von Braun as a kindly man who escaped Germany after the war and helped us win the space race with his rockets, the reality is that he had no problem being a part of the Nazi party if they were willing to allow him to do his work.
Nate: He wasn’t necessarily a Nazi sympathizer, but he had no problem being associated with them in order to work on his rockets.
Dave: He was basically a mercenary, or to use sports terminology, a free agent.
Nate: Which astronaut stood out to you when you were reading the book?
Dave: I really found Alan Bean to be an interesting guy. The whole Apollo 12 flight crew was a fun group, with Bean, Pete Conrad, and Dick Gordon. They were all great friends, even had the same Corvettes that they always drove, and just had a lot of fun. But Bean still kind of stood out to me even among them.
Nate: I agree. Bean was an interesting guy before he went to the moon, and when he came back he became an artist, quite a stretch from what any of the other astronauts chose to do. Some of them even light-heartedly poke fun at him when they’re asked about him, but he doesn’t care. That’s what he loves to do and he does it.
Dave: One other thing I want to mention that I found interesting were the interviews Smith did with the command module pilots who stayed in orbit while the other crew members were on the moon. The extreme isolation they talk about; being alone in orbit around the moon for days, going around the dark side of the moon and being out of contact with anyone while seeing nothing but open space on the other side. It’s really hard to fathom.
Nate: And I found it interesting that none of the command module pilots really felt any frustration at not being able to walk on the moon. Their job was to remain in orbit, map the surface of the moon, and dock with the crew when they returned. That was their part of the mission and they were fine with that.
Dave: So I guess to close we could say that this book would be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in the space program.
Nate: Absolutely. Even if you just have a passing interest I think you would find it fascinating. It’s a lot more than just facts about the missions. Smith gives some of that to the reader, but he also digs a lot deeper. You find out so much more about the men, their journey to the moon, and their life journey afterwards. It really gives the reader an eye opening look at how much of a life changing experience travelling to the moon was for the astronauts who made the journey.