Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nine lives and counting

Space, said Douglas Adams, is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly big it is…

But there’s a small and dwindling group of men who do. Men pushing 80 who’ve seen the Earth from deep space. The Apollo astronauts could hide our planet, all our lives and worries, behind the end of one thumb.

Journalist Andrew Smith was interviewing former astronaut Charlie Duke when word came through that Pete Conrad had been killed in a motorbike crash. Smith was taken by Duke’s forlorn comment that now there were only “nine of us” left – just nine remaining of just 12 men to ever have walked on the Moon. And so Smith set out to find and interview the remaining astronauts, before it was too late.

Moondust is an extraordinary, brilliant book, full of wit and revelation, Smith struggling to tease out what such an experience can have been like. He interviews not just the Moon men but their team-mates left 60 miles up in lunar orbit, the wives and children who suffered such heroes in ordinary life, the journalists who covered the show first time round and those now trying to prove whether it even really happened.

Throughout, Smith works hard to explain context: the context of these men’s lives now (signing autographs at conventions when they’re lower in the billing than some bloke from Lost In Space); the context of the unreconstructed worldview prevailing in their time; the context of international, domestic, office and personal politics which dictated the decisions being made; the context of Smith’s own life and the impact the Moon landings had on him.

This latter aspect might not appeal to everyone – and I found it a bit wearying at times. It’s in complete contrast to In The Shadow of the Moon, which the astronauts tell themselves accompanied by cleaned-up NASA footage. But Smith’s argument is that the missions to get “out there” is important only in what it showed us about ourselves. Standing on that barren, grey rock redefined our position and meaning here.

This human story should appeal to those who’ve never really got into Moon porn. It’s not all just Top Men talking at length about real, manly physics. In fact, the book is full of detail and observation that punctures the cool, controlled image of spacemen. Snot, for example, is,
“no fun at all in a weightless environment.”

Andrew Smith, Moondust, p. 163.

The unglamorous realities of space travel have long been reported – kids queued up at the space museum in Washington DC was astronauts’ toilet, which I think was from a space shuttle. But that strange looking contraption was modern, extravagant comfort compared to the first pioneers. As early as 1973, Buzz Aldrin’s book Return to Earth revealed,
“That the condoms they’d used for collecting urine were a great source of anguish because ‘our legs weren’t the only things that atrophied in space’… [and] that hydrogen bubbles in the water supply they used to rehydrate food had given them the farts and Columbia’s interior didn’t smell so good (there was ‘a considerable fragrance’) by the time they got home.”

Ibid., p. 101.

It changes our view of these healthy American heroes, filled to the gills with the “right stuff”, to hear of leaks in the condoms that resulted in reeking, “blobbing globules of piss”. (What a brilliantly vivid image; it makes me think of weightless Klingon bleeding in Star Trek VI, or the title sequence of Friday Night With Jonathan Ross.)
“This happened to Gordon Cooper on his Mercury flight and all he could do was herd them together every so often, so that he knew where they were. The rubbers on Apollo had the same problems, but were connected through a hose and valve directly into space. Not only was it easy to catch yourself in the mechanism, but opening the valve brought the hungry tug of absolute vacuum.”
Ibid., p. 247.

And it gets worse. The following grotesque quotation is not suitable for those of a nervous disposition:
“Defecation was the real deal. To do this on Apollo, you had to climb to the lower right side of the craft while your crewmates moved as far away from you as they possibly could – which anyone who’s seen one of the capsules will appreciate wasn’t far. There, you got completely naked, removing rings, watches, everything, because you couldn’t be sure what was going to happen next; then you positioned a special plastic bag as best you could, and went, hoping that everything went in it. Remember that you’re floating; the bag is floating; your shit is floating. Charlie [Duke] says: ‘Anything you can imagine happening… happened.’ Thus there is the tale of the stool that went freelance on one flight … So unspeakable was the hour-long process of dumping and getting cleaned up afterwards that I heard rumours of one astronaut dosing himself with Imodium, which enabled him to hold it for eight whole days.”
Ibid., p. 248.

It’s like some kind of disconnect; the extraordinary aspiration and physics and enterprise, yet inextricable from such humbling, basic human functionality. Smith is also good at connecting the dots, using this beastly detail to explain – though not excuse – the absence of women in the crews.
“Even I find it hard to imagine men and women of his generation sharing these experiences.”
Ibid., p. 247.

The lesson is that space isn’t just big, it’s weird and counter-intuitive. Smith explains space sickness – where those of us who use exterior signals completely lose our bearings – and the complexities of orbital mechanics. Thrust lifts you into a higher orbit, which has weaker gravity and where it’s further to get round to the same place again (because the circumference of the orbit is bigger). Thus increasing your speed to catch something up actually puts you further away.
“Bizarre as it sounds the solution … is to decrease velocity, so sinking to a lower, shorter, faster orbit, then to gradually transfer back up to the original one at precisely the right point to meet the target. This stuff is called ‘orbital mechanics’ and it manifestly is rocket science.”
Ibid., pp. 147-8.

And even more incredibly this stuff was being sussed out and tested, with men putting their lives at risk, by, in Aldrin’s own phrase:
“earnest young engineers, their holstered slide rules slapping against their belts.”
Ibid., p. 211.

The computers by which mission control monitored proceedings were, by modern standards, not even pocket calculator stuff. It makes the whole thing as much foolhardy as brilliant. And so, you’d think, a whole lot more endearing. But there’s also a dark side to the story.

On the side of these engineers was German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, a controversial figure then and now. As in the James Bond novel Moonraker, German rocketry was a valuable commodity in the early Cold War, but came with a difficult moral dimension. Reg Turnhill, the BBC’s aerospace correspondent for two decades, couldn’t shake von Braun’s hand for some years. Reg’s
“eldest son was born prematurely when one of the first V-2 rocket-bombs von Braun designed during World War II fell on Sydenham.”
Ibid., p. 39.

And the man Reg describes working for NASA could come right out of Bond:
“To begin with, his thick accent and mouth full of metal teeth were ‘quite revolting for the viewer’, but one day Reg turned round and, lo, the engineer was speaking perfect English through a gallery of gleaming white teeth.”

Smith teases at the controversy. Did von Braun know about the slave labour conditions under which his work for the Nazis was carried out? Was he complicit in the regime? Did he see the punishment and executions? How much of his past was swept under the carpet so as not to inconvenience the mission? And, madly, mixed up in all that is what sounds like some insanely inspired sitcom.
“Prior to his flight, [Apollo astronaut Edgar] Mitchell spent a week sharing a house with the rocket scientist [von Braun] and Arthur C. Clarke, who was by then regarded as one of the most influential futurist thinkers on the planet, because for that brief period sci-fi was seen as something more than escapism.”
Ibid., p. 69.

There’s a definite sense of the transcendent in that period up to Apollo 11; a sense that anything can be and will be achieved, whatever the sacrifice needed. I’ve talked before that the term “single-minded” is a euphemism for someone being a shit. Here, marriages suffered and collapsed; children suffered dad’s who were impossible role models and who set impossible standards. And von Braun’s involvement is troubling because it exemplifies the any cost approach.

Other German scientists were found out for their part in torture and horrific treatment, and were retired from the programme. Even those who worked with von Braun, who liked him, are sceptical of his innocence; they argue he would have worked under any flag, that the politics didn’t matter half as much as the achievement.

Certainly, von Braun had bold ambitions for where the programme would go next. In 1969, with the Moon landing still a tantalising probability, he presented Congress with a plan for,
“nuclear rockets assembled in Moon bases, to reach the red planet in the early 1980s.”
Ibid., p. 107.

Which is ironic, really. There’s a suggestion that NASA would have been better served with space planes instead of rockets – they would have been safer and more sustainable, so the space age might have lasted longer than December 1972. But von Braun’s lobbying and the fact rockets could be produced faster than new versions of the X-15 seem to have decided things. The single-mindedness turned out to be as counter-intuitive as space.

All the astronauts Smith speaks to yearn to go back to the Moon. I’m not sure whether that’s because they personally need to return – infected with a bug for moondust as some people are bewitched by Africa. Perhaps, like Tennyson’s Ulysees, the old men crave one last great adventure. They’ve all got reasons for insisting on the importance of man going back: science; pioneering spirit; resources and profit; just to beat the Chinese. John Young even claims we have to get off-planet if the species is to survive, that there’s a
“1 in 455 chance of humanity failing to see out the next century … You’re about ten times more likely to get killed in a civilization-ending event than you are of getting killed on a commercial airline flight.”
Ibid., p. 215.

But is this all just skirting around the debilitating sense of anti-climax, the mundane paucity of the human world they have returned to? Is the yearning to return just a way to validate those incredible 10 days off-planet, and the shadow they cast on the rest of their lives?

Smith following them round, begging for interviews, seeing them at expensive dinners and signings, and sadly reports their tetchy in-bickering. There’s a sense that the astronauts – every one of them either an only child or eldest sibling – are still squabbling alpha males.

They are all in their own ways competitive, high-achieving and selfish. They have their own obsessions – religious, artistic or political – and nothing gets in the way. These are, of course, the necessary characteristics to achieve something so improbably and audacious as getting to the Moon. Something so manifestly incredible that huge numbers don’t believe it.

The restless disquiet with life that Smith charts is not down to what they saw out in space. If they have had trouble adjusting to post-lunar life, it seems it’s because there’s nowhere further to go. They can’t describe or explain what it was like to be there, but that can’t stop the endless queue of people asking that very question. The tragedy is not that there are only nine Moonwalkers left, but that, despite our protests, they could never hope to share the experience with the rest of us.


Le Mc said...

Wow. That was thoroughly fascinating and extremely well-written.

Anonymous said...

...enabled him to hold it for eight whole days...

Fantastic. Imagine being back on Earth and being asked what the first thing you would do is ?

"Hopefully, a shit"

Rob Stradling said...

I loved "Moondust", but I must admit, more for the idea and the inherent enthusiasm than the actual writing...

Once you get past the cracking premise, it's difficult to escape the fact that these are all decayed old versions of men who were, of necessity, fairly limited beings to start with. I left with no change to my impression that Aldrin and Bean would be the only ones actually worth meeting.

Still, it's a cracking piece of journalism, even if the idea is more than half the achievement.