Saturday, April 10, 2021

Reading | Space and Moondust

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." -President John F. Kennedy in a special State of the Union message on May 25, 1961

Space | James A. Michener

Another epic tome by this legendary author who ingeniously threads ribbons of fictitious characters through the warp and woof of mankind's real-life adventures in space. Start with a handful of survivors clinging to life after World War II's Battle of Leyete Gulf, and follow the intrigue of politicians, pilots, computer developers, PR men, and rocket engineers as they pursue their dreams of exploring the heavens. Enjoy the symphony of public reaction and wackadoodle push-back in response to their resounding triumphs. If you're not familiar with the story of how mankind came to travel in space, or if you remember well the days of Wernher von Braun, Yuri Gargarin, and the Mercury Seven, you will find this story equally spellbinding. Just keep your phone handy because consulting Wikipedia to sort fiction from fact is a delightful part of the journey.

I am a child of the sixties, and the space race stood front and center in my imagination for the first decade of my life. My mother shook me from my sleep to watch the glorious early morning lift-offs with their billowing clouds of fire and flame, and we stayed riveted to television coverage till the tiny capsules fell back to earth and safely splashed down. I memorized the astronauts' names and the faces of their wives and kids; I understood the different kinds of space vehicles, their intricate docking maneuvers, and strategic objectives of each mission; I felt endlessly reassured by the calm, cool ship-to-earth banter between the astronauts and their care-taking humans in Houston. Michener's creative reconstruction of these years, wrapped up in the fascinating before-and-after events that put the space race into historical context, brings all those memories to life for me, and fills in many of the gaps in my less-than-ten-year-old brain. 

What I remember most about the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo; of NASA and Cape Canaveral and EVAs and LMs and "T-minus ten, nine, eight," as Michener so beautifully lays them out like stars shining in the black velvet sky, is our collective thrill at the miracle of it all. And if there is anything about me that is true, it's that I've grown up to believe that if going to the moon is possible, then anything is possible. For my unending trust in the power of human endeavor, I thank the hundreds of thousands of people who drove our space programs forward during those exciting, crazy, critical years for proving to me that it's true, and I thank Michener for reminding me. Anything really is possible. 

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Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth | Andrew Smith

In the entire history of mankind, only twelve humans have ever set foot on the moon, and during a chance encounter with one of them around the year 2000, the author realized that that number was already down to nine and would soon dwindle to zero. So he set himself the challenge of interviewing each one of the Moonwalkers to ask, "What was it like to walk on the moon, and what did you do after that?" The results are surprising, predictable, emotional, laughably rational, funny, sad, and entirely thought-provoking. Smith is truly an artist with words, and brought deep compassion and insight to these fascinating men. 

If I were to write a book about the space program, I'd want to write one just like Moondust. Though I can plow through and even enjoy the more typical technical prose calmly laid down by the technocrats who dreamed up these incredible missions and made them come true, this book tells the kind of story that fascinates me most: 

Who were these humans who went to the moon? 
What made them tick? 
What did they feel when they walked on the moon?
How did their experience affect them, change them, illuminate the rest of their lives? 

And then, with breathtaking insight, the author turns the tables upside down and nails the best question of all: what do the stories of these Moonwalkers tell us about ourselves? 

Smith writes with the compassion and profundity deserving of the subject, but he's also freaking hilarious and I smiled at every page. It helps that he's very close to my age, which makes him feel like a friend, and his clever cultural references and signs of the times resonate with accuracy and charm. 

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I give both of these books top marks, and both have earned a well-deserved place on my Space Exploration bookshelf. (Yes, I really have one.) Please allow me to clarify their difference:

Space is like a college education, filling the mind with an orderly progression of information about man's pursuit of the moon and beyond, providing not only structure but a deep sense of competence and thorough understanding of the subject. 

Moondust is the hilarious and brilliant fellow student who strolls into your senior year capstone class, helps you re-write your thesis paper, and makes you feel like you've been best friends forever. 

If I had to choose one book over the other, I'd be hard pressed to make a choice. But yay! I don't have to choose, and neither do you. Like so many pairs of books on a common topic, reading them together, one after the other, creates a synergy that fills me with joy. If you have any interest in the Apollo program and man's achievements in space flight, I say run, don't walk, to your nearest library or book shop and grab these two gems!

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