Space Week Interview | Moondust, In Search Of The Men Who Fell To Earth

For another Space Week special Carl Hutchinson interviewed Andrew Smith, author of Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell To Earth and recent speaker at the Bluedot Festival.

HeadStuff: What was the moment or the event that reignited your interest in space?

AS: I was a kid in California when they had landed on the Moon for the first time. It’s hard for people to understand just how monumental it seemed and how the whole world just seemed to stop. I was riding around on my bike with my friends and pretty much the whole grown-up world just ceased that day. We would go to each other’s houses and gather around TV sets and no one could quite believe it when they got down, especially on the first attempt. It was a difficult difficult thing. The fact that we haven’t left Earth’s orbit since 1972 gives us an indication of how difficult it is.

Like most people I actually stopped thinking about it after that when the Apollo programme ended in 1972. It was only at the end of the 1990s when I was a journalist and met one of the 12 Moonwalkers, Charlie Duke, that my interest returned. As things turned out it was the day after one of the other 12, a guy called Pete Conrad who was beloved of everyone, had a motorbike accident. He was expected to be ok, but while I was with Charlie Duke, word came through that he had died. Charlie was very upset and we stayed talking for a while and at the end when I got up to go he said,

“now there are only nine of us”.

For the next couple of years I was thinking about those nine and how it meant that before too long there won’t be anyone on Earth that has stood on the Moon and has seen us from that distance. And I mentioned it to a couple of people and they said you should write a book about that, and so I did.

HeadStuff: Are there any people you wished had been alive at the time of writing it? Pete Conrad, Alan Shepard, or the controversial Dr. Wernher von Braun?

AS: I would have been interested to meet von Braun who designed the Apollo Spacecraft. It was a masterpiece that rocket and everyone agrees with this. He was a very very clever guy, a rocketry genius but, of course, he had worked for the Nazis during the war and he designed the V-2 rocket. The part of South London that I live in, the V-2 took quite a few houses out of it. But the astronauts, against that, all adored him. Even the ones I like best, the more reflective astronauts, really liked von Braun. He was a complex character. So I would have liked to have met him and I would have liked to have met Pete Conrad because he just seems like he was loads of fun. I would have liked to have met them all. I’ve never met Michael Collins who was the command module pilot for Apollo 11.

apollo 11
Apollo 11 Crew left to right: Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. (Image credit NASA)

HeadStuff: Wwell there’s still time isn’t there.

AS: Yes. Collins wrote what’s my personal favourite, Carrying The Fire. It’s fantastic. Not only was he an astronaut but he is a beautiful writer.

HeadStuff: Unlike some of the other biographies.

AS: Most of them aren’t unreadable, but they do tend to be dry and matter of fact and tell you things that are familiar. I hate saying it but Neil Armstrong’s one, I can’t abide that book. It doesn’t tell you any of the things that are most interesting and I think he did it deliberately because he didn’t want us to know those things. So I respect him.

HeadStuff: Armstrong has an enigmatic quality around him. Post Apollo 11 he was messed around a bit and it’s like he said, alright, I’m doing it on my own terms now. 

AS: He didn’t like the public attention. I made a documentary about him for the BBC to try work out why he behaved as he did after the flight. What came out was that the idea of him as an aloof reclusive character was not borne out in reality. Friends described him as having a wild wicked humour, a great guy, very loyal, lots of close friends, no problems connecting with people at all. But he really didn’t like being the celebrity and who among us can blame him? He did a good job of managing that, in a way that allowed him to live a life apart from his celebrity. I have huge respect for him.

HeadStuff: Almost like the polar opposite to someone like Dr. Buzz Aldrin.

AS: Buzz Aldrin is a strange character. I mean I like him. but you never know what you’re going to get with him. He is another very complex character. He suffers from, and they didn’t know it during the programme, very severe depression. He had his challenges. And also it was a big thing they did, they had just been to the Moon and 2-3 years later Buzz Aldrin was selling cars. Every one thought they’d be rich and these days they would have been because they were celebrities. Those who were military, like Aldrin, were just paid according to their rank. Then the Apollo programme stopped suddenly in 1972 and most of them had to find something else to do. They were around the age of 40, good time for a mid-life crisis, and they had a rough ride of it.

HeadStuff: Once you’ve been to the Moon what do you do next? You’ve hit the height of human experience.

AS: Well that was the question I set out to answer in Moondust. It was fascinating. Some of them came back and had a really tough time and couldn’t reintegrate into everyday life and did seem to carry this sense of dissatisfaction. They stayed with Apollo and part of them was left on the Moon. Then there were others who came back and moved on in very surprising directions and ended up being very happy with their lot and integrated the Moon landings with their life quite well. That was what I wanted to explore. For me the book ended up being about what the answer is to that question but I won’t spoil it, I like that everyone has a different idea of what the book is about

HeadStuff: It’s said that in hundreds or thousands of years, if humanity isn’t wiped out, Aldrin and Armstrong will be some of the very few people that will be remembered from today. Who should be added to that list, particularly from the Apollo era?

AS: I would add them all. They all did different things. Don’t forget Armstrong and Aldrin weren’t on the surface all that long because their main duty was to land, which was quite a quite a job in fact as things turned out. It was very difficult and they may not had made it if it wasn’t for Armstrong’s flying skills. But some of the later missions stayed up there a long time and they went up the mountains and saw craters and collected rocks and brought a car up there. If I could have been on one mission it would have been Apollo 15 when they went up the mountains and it just sounded staggeringly beautiful.

HeadStuff: What interviews were the most challenging and why?

AS: Persuading Alan Bean to do it in the beginning was difficult because he said “I’ve become a painter now”. Gene Cernan took a long time and he was the last to come on board and I think he only did because of the others.

HeadStuff: You could be responsible for getting Alan Bean on the circuit.

AS: There’s an author called Frank Cottrell Boyce and he wanted to write a space-themed children’s book. Danny Boyle had just given him a copy of Moondust to read and so he called me and said he wanted to have a real astronaut in this book so who should he have? Immediately I said Alan Bean and so he did, and he went away and wrote this book called Cosmic which is really lovely. I gave a copy he sent me to my son, who was about six, to read and he was standing next to me in my study one day while he was in the middle of reading this book and the phone rang, and it was Alan Bean! He said he had just come back from Korea and everyone over there kept wanting to talk to him about Moondust. They were interested in him from what they had read in the book. He’s an appealing character and I think the book reflects him well. He’s a wonderful man. I said to my son Isaac, “there’s someone I’d like you to have a chat with” and I put him on the phone to the Alan Bean, the man he was just reading about.

Alan Bean in his studio
Alan Bean was the fourth man to walk on the Moon and resigned from NASA in 1981 to become a painter. (photo credit: Matthew Bisanz)

HeadStuff: Which interview was the most enjoyable?

AS: I loved meeting Alan and chatting and getting to know him. Edgar Mitchell, what an amazing man, he ran an organisation called the Institute of Noetic sciences which was about study of consciousness really. He said he felt a consciousness in the universe on his way back from the Moon. The institute had a conference in Florida and I just turned up and had a great time with all these quite unusual people and scientists. I loved meeting him and spending time with him. Buzz Aldrin was difficult but I really enjoyed it and it was fascinating. Charlie Duke is a lovely man.

HeadStuff: Have you ever thought about writing a book about the command module pilots the unsung heroes of the missions? You spoke to Dick Gordon didn’t you?

AS: Yes I met him signing autographs at a star trek convention in Las Vegas. He was surrounded by actors who played characters in space and here was this real astronaut among them. To me their role is in many ways the most interesting one because they got to spend time on their own circling the Moon and they were around the back side of the Moon on their own where it’s completely dark with no contact with Earth. I think they’re amazing. That’s a good idea. I had kind of avoided writing another space book until now, I’m just coming to the point where I think I could just contemplate that.

HeadStuff: Well I hope you do.

AS: The book I wrote after Moondust is called Totally Wired about the birth of the internet so it’s cyber space, which to me is just as fascinating and right now seems a lot more important than it did.

But I’m very glad everyone is a lot more interested in space again because they really weren’t when I set out to do MoondustThe thing that fascinated me about the Apollo Moonwalkers at the time was that they had been forgotten and nobody gave a damn. We had just had the 30th anniversary and there was a 3 or 4 minute thing on the news and that seemed really fascinating that it had just gone away.

HeadStuff: What’s next?

AS: I’m working on a bunch of things. I’m doing screenwriting. I’m looking at another book but I’m not particularly in a hurry to do that right now. I’m doing a podcast in the US that I can’t tell you too much about. In all honesty I don’t think it would be possible to write a book like Moondust now because Amazon have driven down the price of books and they’d get shared and so on on the internet. I’m not sure I would have been able to afford, in the current climate, to do it. I’m wary about non-fiction books. I’m in the middle of a novel at the moment. When things get a bit better for writers I’ll probably look at another non-fiction book. They’re huge things. The last took about three years. These things are expensive to make. You have to travel around. I got to the point in the middle of the last two where the money ran out and I knew what I wanted it to be – do I just spend savings and make it as good as I can, or, do I cut my losses? And you know I spent my savings and remortgaged the house but there’s only so many times in your life you can do that. At some point there’ll be another book but I couldn’t tell you when yet. Oh but there’s one thing I should tell you about, an exclusive, that I’m doing a programme about Mars on Radio 4 which will be in March, I think. There will be a Mars season and I’m doing a 60 minute documentary for it.

We look forward to your documentary Andrew Smith! Thanks for Talking to Carl Hutchinson for

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