Moondust is my favorite book of all time, and when I tell people about it the reaction is always the same. The book explores what the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space mission from 1969-71, and how they adjusted to civilian life afterwards.When I tell people that this is what the book is about, they always say of course! It’s something of great interest but it is also something that is rarely taken into consideration or thought about intensely.
NASA did not have the psychological provisions that are today in place for astronauts. The original set of astronauts did not cope very well when they were suddenly back on earth, having achieved a media stardom that was unprecedented at that time. They were probed and probed about their experiences, what did the moon landing mean to them, how did it make them feel?
Most of the astronauts said that the experience was a liminal one. They had seen what very few had seen. Yet when the fell back to the earth they had almost PTSD like symptoms. Many of them suffered mental health issues and addiction problems later on in their lives, after the Apollo missions.
Smith’s book analyses the astronaut’s backgrounds and the political climate of their venture. What’s most interesting about the book however is its reporter style. Smith is fascinated by the moon landings and wonders what each astronaut who took part in the original Apollo missions subsequently did with the lives, what problems did they face?
Smith’s questions took on a burning urgency as, with the passing of years, soon none of the astronauts would be still be alive to tell their tales. Smith cannot live with the prospect of the astronaut’s experiences going uncatalogued and sets out to meet and interview each of them. Some are warm and grew comfortable to the media attention still bestowed on them all these years later, while some are more ambivalent and hostile to talk about their experiences.
When I explain that the book looks at the psychology of the astronauts after they returned to the earth, people often say, of course! Of course they had mental health issues. It makes complete sense when this is pointed out but few often consider it as a consequence of the moon landings.
The book is full of memorable moments. The astronaut who continually paints the same moon scene, over and over, seeking to capture a new element of it. The astronaut that cries when he is told by Houston to leave the moon, claiming “this is the saddest moment of my life”. The small town pilots who suddenly found themselves in an unbelievable position of being the first men to step on the moon. The men that waited in another vessel while others made history.
Many of the astronauts gained perspective from their experiences. Some had religious epiphanies, while others felt impossibly and terrifyingly small. Many of the astronauts, Buzz Aldrin among them, struggled with depression and alcoholism in the aftermath of the moon landings and sudden fame.
Ultimately this book is an unbelievably thought provoking and rich book. It’s simultaneously reportage, investigation into psychology, the media, the politics of NASA and its funding, and an amazingly humanistic book. The message I take away from the book though is this, that if astronauts can suffer mental health problems, then who can’t? Nobody is immune from mental illness, including the people that had the most amazing and intimidating task of all. It’s a great read and if you’re as taken with the book as I was, you’ll think about it long after you’ve put it down.