Book 16: Moondust, In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

February 28, 2009 at 12:46 am (Review) (, , , , , , , , , )

In Moondust Andrew Smith goes on a quest to answer  question, “What did it feel like to walk on the moon?” and to discover what the answer means for all of us. He attempts achieve this by  interviewing each of the men still alive who walked on the moon and asking them. The simplicity of this approach could easily lead to a trite recitation of clichés we have all heard before but Smith works hard to get beyond this. He manages to do so by looking at the wider effects of the moonwalks on the astronauts’ lives. Though none of the astronauts ever did anything quite like going to the moon afterwards, he takes a highly engaging look at the ways in which they followed similar paths and the ways in which they diverged. What is lovely and entirely typical is that the most interesting and entertaining astronauts are not who you would expect.

The wider story is obviously extraordinary, it is after all the story of how we made it to the moon and back. It is this quality that makes it such a challenge to write about. It would be easy to slip in to hyperbole or watery metaphysics, especially when the astronauts’ themselves have such difficulty expressing what they experienced. Smith deftly avoids this by discussing events and astonishing facts in a very earthbound fashion. It is not simply the fact that we once went to the moon that makes this book so astonishing there are a plethora of incidental facts that dropped my jaw, for example all the men who went to the moon were either eldest sons or only sons, which clearly says something about the psychology of the men involved. He also places the moonwalks within the wider cultural and political landscape, exploring how they came to happen at all given the immense cost and what effect they had on art and music as well as science. 

Smith makes it clear that this book is not just about the astronauts (though that may have been his original intention) it is also about the people around them and about the people who watched at home and found their lives changed because of it. There are collectors of memorabilia, venture capitalists investing in space hotels, a lobby for a manned return to space and of course the nay-saying conspiracy theorists all of whom get a look in as part of his exploration of the meaning of the Moonwalks. It is also about his journey following this story across America, sometimes the device of putting yourself in what is essentially a journalistic search can be excruciating, books can become more about the writer than the story. Thankfully Smith has enough charm and enthusiasm for his subject out weigh any of the narcissistic tendencies of the device. 

I would very strongly recommend Moondust it is utterly fascinating and filled with amazing stories and facts. He reminds us that when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the moon they didn’t know if he would sink in to the surface or if space germs would come back with them and wipe us all out or if a large hungry alien would devour them. They didn’t know because no one had been there before. Imagine for a minute what that must be like. Surely knowing more about that is worth your time.

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