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Moon cast a spell on the nation

By WILLIAM MCKEEN Special to the Times
Published February 1, 2007


Of all the devalued words in our language, "incredible" is at the top of the list. People talk about video games or sneakers as "incredible." So what word can we invent to describe the landing on the moon?

Because that was incredible. Here are a few more words to describe it: "improbable," "insane" and "magnificent."

Maybe you think you know the story of the race to the moon because you read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. That was a terrific book that wove something epic out of a tapestry of silliness, ego and blind ambition.

But Wolfe's book was tightly focused on the astronauts. Gerard DeGroot's wonderful new book, Dark Side of the Moon, looks at all aspects of the space program and gives us a complete picture of the glorious folly that was the race to the moon.

DeGroot, a historian at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, has written a witty and elegant book about America's desperate gamble for space supremacy.

Exploring space was the next step in the nation's manifest destiny and the fulfillment of the Turner thesis: that America was a nation dependent on the concept of the frontier for its growth and development. Space was a natural outlet for the pent-up American spirit. Capt. Kirk was right; it really was the Final Frontier.

But why? We knew the moon was a hunk of rock before we got there. Did visiting it teach us anything we didn't already know?

Spending the billions to get us to the moon was a political, not a scientific decision. Something was needed to show that America was superior to the Soviet Union, particularly after the Russians beat us into space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite.

With clever marketing and public relations, the Americans soon caught up and offered up seven handsome heroes, the original Mercury astronauts. The Magnificent Seven and their beautiful wives were sold to America through the glossy color pages of Life magazine, but the public facade stopped when the astronauts returned to training in Cocoa Beach, where their groupies lined up three or four women deep outside their motel rooms.

With President Kennedy looking for something to rally the nation after his disastrous effort to invade Cuba, he suggested that we try to land men on the moon by the end of the decade.

Politicians and defense contractors lined up butt to bellybutton to dine at the government trough. Billions were appropriated and the largesse was spread around - to Florida, to Huntsville, Ala., and to Houston, where towns populated by NASA families took over. As the space program took hold, Brevard County in Florida grew from 23,000 people to 239,000.

Despite the connection between JFK and the space program in the public mind, the president wasn't entirely jazzed about it. To him, NASA was like kudzu, the vine that grows and suffocates all that it comes into contact with. DeGroot characterizes the space race as something of an ogre to the president. At one point, he considered partnering with the Soviets, which would have derailed the whole reason for the race to the moon: competition.

But Kennedy's assassination assured that the space race would continue as a tribute to the popular president.

The astronauts were the heroes, of course, and DeGroot details every mission. Each one seemed to have some kind of screwup, but somehow America lucked out until the disaster on the Apollo 1 launching pad that killed three astronauts. That was in early 1967, but rather than slow down, Johnson pushed to meet Kennedy's end-of-the-decade deadline.

When Neil Armstrong stepped out on the moon and did his one-small-step-for-man thing, it was a monument-ready statement. What Buzz Aldrin said when he came down the ladder after Armstrong was more telling. He looked around the bleak surface of the moon and said, "Magnificent desolation." Looking back on Earth in all of its lush beauty, he wondered why we would ever want to leave it.

After the first moon landing, the public lost interest. Too bad. No matter how cynical we might be about the motivation behind the space race, DeGroot makes us appreciate the splendor of the achievement.

William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.

The book

Dark Side of the Moon

By Gerard J. DeGroot

New York University Press, 321 pages, $29.95

[Last modified January 31, 2007, 22:09:58]

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