Friday, May 14, 2010

Moon rocks

I’ve just finished a fantastic book, Moon Dust by Andrew Smith. I’m a total sucker for any (non-fiction) accounts of the Space Race, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff has, until now, remained the one by which all others should be judged. However I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Smith’s tome (published in 2005) just edges out Wolfe’s earlier account. This is slightly unfair, as we’re not quite comparing like with like: The Right Stuff confines itself to the study of the origins of NASA and the early Mercury programme, where ex-pilots like Al Shepard, John Glenn and Gus Grissom became, essentially, “Spam-in-a-can”, slightly more evolved versions of Laika or Able & Baker, for the first orbital earth flights. Smith’s book, on the other hand, looks at the Apollo missions, and specifically the twelve men that walked on the moon, nine of whom are still alive.

Still, Smith’s book just trumps Wolfe’s, to my mind, because as well as outlining the facts and sketching in the characters of the astronauts, the author also considers wider questions of what it meant to travel to the moon, to the individuals concerned but moreover to mankind as a whole. Of course, for most astronauts, their Apollo flight and landing was an early peak in their lives, one that would be impossible to surpass in the decades that followed it. All coped in different ways, but patterns recur. Many went through divorces not long afterwards. Buzz Aldrin succumbed to alcoholism. Neil Armstrong became a virtual recluse. Others, such as Charlie Duke, found religion. Alan Bean turned to art, painting moonscapes over and over again to try and recapture the feelings that he experienced on the lunar surface. Edgar Mitchell turned into a UFO nut. Along the way, there are some revealing vignettes: tales of NASA’s bureaucracy and parsimony abound, never more so than in the story of Aldrin’s framed expenses receipt, with deductions:

PAYEE’S NAME: Col. Edwin E. Aldrin 00018
FROM: Houston, Texas
TO: Cape
Kennedy, Fla.
Pacific Ocean

That these men, who put their lives on the line time and again (and who, lest we forget, were totally uninsurable) were little more than glorified civil servants on relatively meagre wages goes some way to explaining why David Scott and the crew of Apollo 15 sought to profit from Stampgate.

The book’s not all doom and gloom, though. Far from it. Smith has a terrific deftness of style, always finding the right metaphor or simile. As a former rock journalist, he’s good at leavening the heavier stuff with moments of bathetic relief. He manages to include elements of his personal odyssey too (as a child of the 60s who can remember the events around the moon landings, he’s able to also address the question of what the space race meant to him, and how profoundly it affected his life and relationships) without ever interrupting the main thrust of the narrative. And he includes one terrific, and spot-on, passage about the nature of modern celebrity and our relationship with celebrities. It’s occasioned by the author’s presence at a dinner in Nevada, ostensibly honouring many of the Apollo moonwalkers, including Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong who are all there in person, and upon which space-fans and autograph hunters have converged: Armstrong becomes uncomfortable and leaves the auditorium, later to be found staring at the slot machines in the casino.

“Old fashioned fame was acquired., but celebrity is bestowed: it only exists in
relationship with the audience-jury we supply and comprise. Thus, we’re
the arbiters. They owe us. We voted them in and we can vote them
out, more immediately and effectively, in fact, than the politicians who
themselves look and behave more like celebrities every day (perhaps in an effort
to revive our waning interest in their show). Of course, Neil Armstrong is
not a celebrity in the strict sense; because he did something to earn his status
his fame has a hinterland, but the boundaries between the two conditions have
become so confused that we no longer recognise this distinction. So you’d
better sign the autograph, sucker. You’re lucky I even ask.
A widely
reported study in the UK found that people who earn over £35,000 a year feel
more deprived than those who earn less, because they feel licensed to compare
their lives to the more fabulous existence of their democratically appointed
celebrities, and they wonder when their turn’s coming. Is it possible that
our adulation of the famous is no more than a Trojan horse for our own
disappointment and anger? Is this what Armstrong runs from?

Most of all though, Smith’s book boils down to one question- “What was it like to stand on the moon?” On the face of it, this is the most banal and meaningless of questions, on a par with asking a losing X-Factor contestant “How do you feel right now?” Neil Armstrong assiduously avoids the question, and the sort of people that might ask it. Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, Smith reveals, had a stock response to deflect the questioner: “Super! Really enjoyed it!” But at its heart is a real desire to engage with the question of meaning and intent behind the space race. Why exactly did we—i.e. they—i.e. the Americans—travel quarter of a million miles into space? To beat the Soviets? To invent Teflon? Was it political? Scientific? Capitalist PR? And what does that say about us as a species? Are we emboldened by it? Diminished? Ultimately, the effort to get to the moon raises more questions than answers, but whatever it was about (and Smith has a few suppositions), Moon Dust is an engaging, thoughtful and reflective meditation on the subject, mixing three parts of hard-headed science to one part psychology, one part psychedelia, and one part childish wonder.

Smith’s book, while it (of necessity) concentrates on the American half of the space race, gives due credit to Russian pioneers, too, in particular Yuri Gagarin. I knew about Gagarin’s status as the first man of space. I wasn’t aware that he died aged 34 during a routine flight, and that conspiracy theorists posit that he was deliberately killed in the aftermath of a botched, fatal attempt to send one of his compatriots into space (a story that’s too long to repeat here, but which you can find on pp. 129-30).

Gagarin had a profound effect on another boy, but slightly earlier and thousands of miles from Smith (who grew up in California). That boy was Dave Formula, born Dave Tomlinson in Whalley Range, Manchester. Gagarin actually visited Manchester in the early sixties and Formula was there (he can actually be seen in one of the photos taken during the visit). Now, some 50 years later, and after a long career that takes in 60s R&B band St. Louis Union, 70s post-punk nihilists Magazine and 80s proto-New Romantics Visage, it's inspired Formula's debut solo album. Featuring turns from old Magazine hands including Howard Devoto and Barry Adamson, as well as Robert Wyatt and Clint Boon, it’s a concept album of sorts, entitled Satellite Sweetheart, and it documents the romance and optimism of the early years of the space race. The track Elvis In Space captures something of the rock-star status accorded the cosmonauts (and, to this day, to the Apollo astronauts), and it’s presented here for your delectation.

Download Elvis in Space by Dave Formula (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

And, for some light relief, see when Buzz Aldrin met Ali G....

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