The Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s have been called the last optimistic acts of the twentieth century. Twelve astronauts made this greatest of all journeys and were indelibly marked by it, for better or for worse. Journalist Andrew Smith tracks down the nine surviving members of this elite group to find their answers to the question "Where do you go after you've been to the Moon?"
A thrilling blend of history, reportage, and memoir, Moondust rekindles the hopeful excitement of an incandescent hour in America's past and captures the bittersweet heroism of those who risked everything to hurl themselves out of the known world -- and who were never again quite able to accept its familiar bounds.
Between 1969 and 1972, 12 men traveled a quarter-million miles to the moon and returned safely. In this powerful, intimate story, journalist Smith sets out to find these men and discover how that experience changed their lives. Smith, a boy living in a nondescript California subdivision at the time of the Apollo missions and caught up in the endless possibility of space flight, journeys to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., and the backwoods of Texas in search of these mythical figures of American know-how. He finds Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, still cool and confident, a plainspoken man who never let on how close that mission came to disaster. In Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon, he finds an imperious, driven, highly successful businessman. If all of the men share one affliction, it's fame. Once at the center of the world's attention, these mostly ordinary men with some extraordinary gifts and luck have lived their lives being asked the same question--What was it like "up there"? In an artful blend of memoir and popular history, Smith makes flesh-and-blood people out of icons and reveals the tenderness of his own heart.
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August 07, 2006
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Excerpt from Moondust by Andrew Smith
Dreaming of a Moonage
When you've shared a moment with the whole world, it can be hard to know precisely where your memories end and everyone else's begin.
I see a blindingly bright California day. I am cruising on my bike, a metallic green Schwinn with swept-back handlebars and a long chopper seat, which I've only just stopped parking in my bedroom at night so I can fall asleep looking at it. I want to be Evel Knievel and have spent the unending American school holiday building ramps with bricks and bits of wood lifted from local building sites. And no one can out jump me, no one, especially not David, who rides by my side...mad, weird David, who's twice everyone else's size and has a penis like a man's and spends all his time trying to make hang gliders out of 2x4's and sheets of plastic. This morning, I found him begging my brother to jump off his garage harnessed to one of these contraptions and when I pointed out that if the thing plummeted like a stone without anyone attached to it, it would probably do the same with my brother aboard, he insisted that, if you looked-like really, really looked-you would find that it had moved forward from the vertical by at least eight inches. It had, in other words, flown. David's parents sunbathe nude in his backyard sometimes. I can't imagine mine doing that.
No one's in the backyard today. We've just come from his place and his mom and dad are hunched in armchairs, squinting at the TV. We've been riding around for hours, and it's the same everywhere. Cars bake in drives. Dads are home. It's as though the grown-up world is frozen and the Universe holding its breath while these spectral black-and-white images float across the screen, the same pictures in every single house, like the ghosts of ghosts of ghosts.
They're going to the Moon. My dad took me into the garden to look at it last night. I saw him frown as it reflected watery gold on his upturned face, as if someone had stepped over his grave or shone a bright light in his eyes. It was one thing to land a man on the Moon, quite another to bring him back afterward. But to have stood there in the first place...the thought alone made you tingle. Perhaps coming back wouldn't be such a big deal after that. No wonder David and I, and everyone we know, have spent this summer trying to reach the sky in one way or another.
We're in Orinda, California, a quiet suburb on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. It's Sunday, July 20, 1969, and the good things in my life are as follows: my bike; the chattering creek that runs through a ravine at the end of the garden; the fact that my teacher next term is going to be Mrs. Lipkin, the foxy twenty-six-year-old hippy chick who's already been married and divorced twice and plays Jefferson Airplane songs to her class on guitar. And there's my friend Scott McGraw, who's older than me, wears lank long hair and bell-bottom jeans, goes everywhere barefoot and is the first person to tell me that Santa Claus is a lie but if you think that's bad, check out what "fuck" really means. Scott's brother plays in a band called Love Is Satisfaction. Love Is Satisfaction: I love that.
All the streets in our neighborhood are named after characters from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." This is the kind of thing people do when they're building from scratch, out of nothing, with no past to constrain them. My street's called Van Ripper Lane and it slopes in a long arc from top to bottom. At the top end are the sun-soaked hills of Orinda Downs, where we pretend to ride motocross and find fossils and catch lizards in the rocky outcrops perfumed by wild thyme. When there's a breeze, ripples drift across the tall, golden grass and the hills seem to shimmer and I love to lie in it and let it tickle my face as I stare into the cloudless sky. Sometimes, if you stay there long enough, the smaller creatures forget that you're not part of the hill and they'll scuttle around you without fear. Then you do feel part of the hill and the infinitely receding worlds within it. Within a few years, this will be an estate, full of mock-Georgian houses and fences everywhere. The world is changing.
We coast down the hill and into my drive. David throws his bike on the lawn. I park mine on its stand, issuing a warning to my brother and his tiny, blind-as-a-bat friend Ernie that if they knock it over, I will kill them. Without the wind in our faces, it's hot outside, so we trot through the screen door and into the kitchen, from where a trail of sound and excited voices draws us toward the living room. It's 1:15 pm. My parents' friends the Reuhls and the sweet and elderly Fishes from across the road are leaning forward on couch and chairs, forward over the gold-and-orange shag carpet, clutching beers or cups of coffee tightly with varying mixtures of anxiety and disbelief on their faces. A familiar singsong southern drawl is floating from the TV, decorated with static and peculiar little squeaks and pings which sound like someone flicking the lip of a giant wineglass with their finger. We know this as the voice of Mission Control. His name is Charles Duke, but the astronauts just call him "Houston." There are other voices, too, but they all sound distant and intermingled and it's hard to get hold of what they're saying. An air of expectancy hangs in the room.
Now we hear:
"Descent engine command override. Engine arm, off, 413 is in."
"Houston, Tranquillity Base here...the Eagle has landed."