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Excerpt: 'Voices from the Moon'



"I cannot count the number of times somebody has said to me, 'What does it feel like to be on the moon?' I'm tired of that, Andy. I don't want to try and figure that out anymore. I've done my best."

I could hear the exasperation in Dave Scott's voice. On a Saturday evening in August 1987, at a restaurant near Los Angeles, I was several hours into the second of two marathon interviews with the commander of Apollo 15, conversations that would eventually total almost twelve hours. I was in the third year of what would become an eight-year effort to interview 23 of the 24 lunar astronauts (Apollo 13's Jack Swigert had died in 1982) to tell the stories of their missions in my book, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. In truth, I had been preparing for these interviews my entire life.

I was a child of the space age, obsessed with space exploration for as long as I could remember, and I'd devoured every book on the subject I could get my hands on. After I saw Gemini astronauts walking in space I began "training" for it myself, anytime I was in a swimming pool. During every Apollo flight I camped out in front of the TV with maps of the moon and models of the spacecraft, my own little mission control in the den. As a teenager I badgered my parents to take me to NASA headquarters and to Cape Canaveral, where I got to meet some of my heroes in person. I even wrote to my congressman for a VIP pass to the night launch of Apollo 17, the final moon mission, in 1972. In hopes of becoming a scientist-astronaut, I studied planetary geology, and took part in the first Mars landing, Viking, as an undergraduate intern. But a couple of years after I graduated, I changed course. Instead of trying to be a space explorer, I became a space journalist. By 1984 I'd zeroed in on the mission that would take me as close to the moon as I could get: To document the Apollo astronauts' lunar experiences.

By the time I began my interviews for the book in June 1985 with Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad, in his office at the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in Long Beach, California, I'd read every Apollo 12 transcript and debriefing, listened to all the onboard voice tapes, and watched every one of the mission's onboard TV transmissions. It didn't take too long for Conrad to say to me, "You know this mission better than I do." What I hadn't yet realized was that I was under the influence of my own expectations. I was sure anyone who went to the moon would undergo a kind of life-changing awe — what I called a "zap" — and I projected my own feelings of wonderment onto the astronauts. In that sense, I was like much of the public, who had a collective desire for these men to have been somehow transformed by their experiences. I thought about it every time I went out and looked at the moon. "What must they think," I wondered, "when they see the moon coming up?" And so, during each new encounter with a moon voyager I pushed — calmly, respectfully — for what I felt certain must be there. But for the most part, I'd met resistance. Still, I couldn't help myself. I was compelled, again and again, to seek what, to me, had become a holy grail.

Dave Scott was the 11th lunar astronaut I'd sat down with, and he was incredibly generous and articulate in what he shared with me. Sixteen years earlier, in the summer of 1971, he and Jim Irwin had become the first humans to visit the mountains of the moon. For three days they lived in a majestic valley at the base of the towering peaks of the lunar Apennines. With their battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle — the first car on the moon — they drove for miles across a spectacular, sun-drenched landscape under a pitch-black sky. In search of geologic treasure they ventured to the edge of a winding canyon, to the rims of giant craters, and hundreds of feet up the side of a mountain, where, in stolen moments, they'd gazed out on a bright, alien wilderness. During our conversations I felt my mind overflowing with wondrous details, ecstatic about the gems on my tapes. Scott even told me, "No one else has dug this deep." But despite the treasure trove of recollections I was amassing, I still felt compelled to dig for something deeper, something transcendent. And now, sitting across from Scott, I saw the same familiar reaction — a trace of irritation, even frustration — to my attempt to shape their narrative. It was another reminder of what kind of men the Apollo astronauts really were.

. . .

Born between 1923 and 1936, the men of Apollo were children during the early days of aviation, captivated by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and the flying aces of World War I. They grew up to become jet pilots, some in combat, others in peacetime squadrons, but always under the looming threat of the Cold War. And many ascended to the rarefied atmosphere of test flight, risking their lives to gather data on new, untried aircraft, flying the hottest and most dangerous planes around. All were overachievers who wanted nothing more than to tackle a job almost no one else could accomplish. And so, when the space age began, and the word astronaut entered the language, it seemed as if this fantastic new enterprise had been made for them. They would be fliers of a different kind, beyond the atmosphere. They were just the right age, at just the right moment in history, to become the first humans to leave the Earth and journey into deep space. As military men they welcomed a mission of crucial importance to the nation — the moon race with the Soviet Union — and as pilots they reveled in the chance to carry out the ultimate test flights. For some, there was the added appeal of becoming explorers, of seeing landscapes no human eyes had ever seen, of standing on a place where no one had ever been. And for the one moon voyager who did not come to NASA as a pilot — geologist-astronaut Jack Schmitt — it was a chance to practice his science on another celestial body. For all of them, going to the moon was the pinnacle of their profession.

But when they returned from the moon, they faced a new mission, one they could never have anticipated, and had certainly never trained for. As the first humans to visit another world they now had to face the relentless curiosity of their fellow Earthlings, and that meant a lifetime answering the question: "What was it like?" Or worse, "What did it feel like?" Ironically it was the one question they felt least comfortable answering. For one thing, they were all from a generation in which what you felt was much less important than what you did. And most of them were not only pilots but engineers, the ultimate left-brain thinkers. As Apollo 14's Ed Mitchell told me, "I didn't know what feelings were." For anyone in this line of work feelings were not only a distraction but a danger. Feelings could cloud the mind and impair the process of making decisions in high-speed, life-or-death situations. Feelings could kill you. For men who were wired to be the best at whatever they did, it was the worst sort of bind, because unlike a space mission — where every task was written on checklists and practiced until it was almost second nature — this was a mission with no objective criteria for success. And, dauntingly, one with no endpoint: It would be with them for the rest of their lives.

By the time I sat down with them, more than a decade had passed since the last Apollo mission, and most were reluctant to revisit an experience they had described countless times before. They'd also grown understandably weary of trying to be the "poets" the public craved, feeling inadequate to the task. And even those who didn't mind plumbing their own emotional depths pointed out that recording the thoughts and feelings of going to the moon wasn't a priority at the time. "I wasn't there to remember," Apollo 14's Stu Roosa told me. "I was there to fly."

What they didn't realize was how well they succeeded at the mission they never trained for. What they gave me, with remarkable candor, was wonderful. Despite any misgivings, many came through with powerful emotions and observations. A few even said they had been changed, in small or great ways, by the experience. In more than 100 hours of conversations I came away with an extraordinary archive of lunar experiences, told through remarkably varied perspectives. Ultimately, I realized, I'd found my holy grail, in that rich and surprising trove of recollections.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Chaikin