Not long ago, someone congratulated me on having had the foresight to write Moondust in time for the fortieth anniversary of the first lunar landing and the euphoria I knew would accompany it. Lost for a response, I thanked them, but felt a little spooked afterwards, as my mind retraced the maze of synchronicity and chance that led to the making of this book and ultimately directed its content. I realised that in the several years since its publication, perceptions of the Apollo programme have changed out of all recognition, and that this has had nothing to do with the book itself. And I set to wondering why.
When I struck out to find the Moonwalkers in the summer of 2002, the thirtieth anniversary of that most singular and dreamlike of days had just passed with remarkably little fuss. There were a few official celebrations, but most of the accompanying newspaper articles and feelgood TV news items seemed unsure of how to present Apollo after thirty years of neglect. With a new millennium dawning, perhaps our first and only embrace of another world felt, if anything, more distant than it does now. Even the man who led that hazardous trip, Neil Armstrong, offered nothing that might clarify, angering townsfolk in his home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, by failing to turn up at a party thrown in his honour. Legend has it that he went flying at the local airfield instead.
Thus, by 2002, it appeared to me that the most remarkable thing about these men was the extent to which they and their farout story had been forgotten ” not least, up to that point, by myself. After all, the Moonwalkers were holy ghosts of a future that had failed to happen. Why wouldn’t they be signing autographs for a tenner at Star Trek conventions? Or hidden away? Or in effect still up there?
All of which may help to explain my surprise and delight at the excitement greeting this present anniversary; a simple expression of awe which would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. Nevertheless, while much that pertains to the story has changed in the four years since Moondust’s first publication, very much more has stayed the same. I hope you find the looking glass world of the Moonwalkers as intriguing as I did when I first stumbled into it.
Then There Were Nine
On the morning of July 9, 1999, I set out to meet Charlie and Dotty Duke in the bar of a London hotel. It was to be a brief encounter for a small magazine article of a type that I normally avoided, but even at a glance the Dukes were too intriguing to pass by.
What I knew about them was that in April 1972, Charlie had become the tenth of only twelve human beings to gaze back at the Earth from the surface of the Moon. I knew that he’d stayed there for three euphoric days, then come home and imploded: that he’d lost his moorings and been unable to settle; had terrorized his children and tormented his wife, before eventually finding peace and resolution with her through faith in God. Now the pair ran a ministry out of New Braunfels, Texas. They were in town to talk about it.
The longer I looked, the more fascinated I became with the strange and intense three and a half years in which the landings took place, during which the world seemed to shudder and change shape forever. By the end, a black Rolling Stones fan had been beaten to death at Altamont and the Beatles had split in acrimony, with JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King seeming like distant memories. Vietnam was effectively over and the counterculture which defined itself in opposition to the war was drifting off to nowhere like dust in a desert wind, while Watergate reared and racial conflict escalated and the pop music that swirled around my ten-year-old head seemed cooler and more cynical than it ever had before. As NASA flight director Chris Kraft would remark, “The best of times for America was also the worst of times.” Now recession was bearing down and a darker, harsher world was emerging.
And although the space programme was begat by the Cold War, the lunar landings still looked like such a crazy Sixties thing, a last waltz with optimism in a decade which arguably ended on December 19, 1972, when the Apollo 17 astronauts sailed home knowing that the adventure was over and its promise had been a mirage. No Merry Prankster or acid-popping mystic ever did anything freakier than this, and yet the ambiguities of the enterprise seemed endless. What had humanity gained from President Kennedy’s capricious decision to launch his nation at the Moon, and the outrageous cash it required? The lunar programme cost twenty-four billion 1960s dollars: at its peak, NASA was swallowing 5 per cent of the U.S. federal budget. Was all that time, energy, money, life, wasted?
Charlie Duke wasn’t the only one for whom the return to Earth was difficult. I traced the others and found that they’d reacted to their experience in wildly different ways. The First Man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, became a teacher and retreated from public view, “getting back to the fundamentals of the planet,” while his partner Buzz Aldrin spent years mired in alcoholism and depression, then threw himself into developing space ideas which all looked impossibly fanciful to me. The naturally rebellious Alan Bean of Apollo 12 quit space to become an artist, endlessly rendering scenes from the lunar quest in oils, and Edgar Mitchell experienced a “flash of understanding” in which he switched on to the Universe, sensing an intelligence which he would spend the rest of his life trying to understand. Even more dramatically, Jim Irwin purported to have heard God whispering to him at the feet of the majestic, gold-coloured Apennine Mountains, leaving NASA for the Church upon his return. Meanwhile, the fearsome Alan Shepard, the only one to admit crying on the surface, did the one thing no one thought he would do – could do: he mellowed.
Among the rest, John Young became a fierce critic of NASA after the Challenger shuttle disaster and left the Astronaut Office in a fog of anger and grief, and Last Man on the Moon Gene Cernan admits to a nagging disappointment with everything that has followed his experience with Apollo 17 (“it’s tough to find an encore”). His flight companion, Jack Schmitt, became a U.S. senator, but found politicians myopic and frustrating after the creativity he’d grown used to. He wasn’t re-elected and I’d heard that he latterly worked as a “space consultant” in Albuquerque. All described an almost mystical sense of the unity of humankind as seen from afar. A lot happened up there. The post-flight divorce rate was, in more than one sense, astronomical.