Thursday, Jul. 16, 2009

Moon Walkers

Metaphor had its way with Buzz Aldrin long before the moon did. There were always signs that the second man to set foot on the lunar surface would be stalked by demons. His grandfather fought depression for much of his life and ended his suffering only through suicide. His mother, too, struggled with melancholy and, after Aldrin's first spaceflight, in 1966, began wearing dark glasses in public to help her cope with the family's fame. In May 1968, just 14 months before Aldrin left for his lunar trip, she also took her own life. Aldrin bore the loss quietly and flew Apollo 11 flawlessly, but in case he needed his journey to carry any more portent, there was this: his mother's maiden name was Marion Moon.

I first met Buzz in 1990, years after his landmark mission and years, too, after he had overcome his own depression and alcoholism. I had not yet begun collaborating with astronaut Jim Lovell on the book Apollo 13, so Aldrin was the first lunar vet I'd ever met. We attended a dinner on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, moored on Manhattan's West Side, and I maneuvered myself so that we wound up sharing a cab east. That night, a big white platter of a moon hung over 46th Street, which seemed deeply meaningful to me but which Buzz did not seem to notice. Instead, we discussed the future of rocket propulsion and space travel, a topic that continues to fascinate him.

That future, as always, is uncertain, but as the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing arrives on July 20, the past remains familiar. Nine Apollo missions were launched moonward, and six of them landed. The cultural memories of these missions remain penny-bright — and the aging men who flew the ships retain a status that goes beyond iconic. Baseball players are icons; movie stars are icons. But those kinds of folks, we breed as we need. The lunar fraternity stopped taking members in 1972, when there were only 24 of them — and six have since died. History has produced far more American Presidents than it has lunar astronauts.

There are giants among the giants: Lovell, Shepard, Armstrong, Aldrin — figures who, like Gehrig and Lindbergh and Edison, need but one name. Others are harder for people to place: Stu Roosa, Ron Evans, Dick Gordon. But bring any one of the surviving moonmen into a room and he will be approached in the same way: with a wonder and a deference accorded to only those few who have sailed past the part of the map where dragons be and come back home to tell the rest of us what they saw.

"I'm amazed at the interest folks give to a moon walker," says Apollo 16's Charlie Duke, whose bootprints are still pressed into the moon's Descartes highlands and who, after 37 years, ought to be used to the attention. Aldrin still marvels at the seemingly universal need people have to tell him where they were on the night they watched him walk on the moon.

But what about the men themselves? What about the 39-year-old pilot who returns from the moon and knows with a mortal certainty that he has already done the most noteworthy thing he'll ever do and now must keep himself busy for the next half-century? What about the existential whiplash that comes from being on the moon one week and in your living room the next — and having to find your own way to process the vast gulf between those two worlds? "I remember coming back to Houston after the moon, and my neighbors had a barbecue for me," Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15, told me. "I thought, 'What am I doing here?' "

And what happens when the press pack moves on, when the interviews stop and the faces of the flyers once limned with light become lined with age? "Remember where you're standing when the spotlight goes off," Lovell warned me once, when our book was a best seller and the movie it spawned was in theaters. "You'll have to find your own way off the stage."

The Rightest Stuff
In many ways, the men chosen to go to the moon were uniquely equipped to deal with such complex emotional questions — if only because they weren't wired to give them much thought. Jack Swigert, whose sole trip into space was aboard the aborted Apollo 13, once observed that the odd banality of the air-to-ground communications from the Apollo missions, in which astronauts getting their first glimpse of the moon rarely uttered anything more poetic than "amazing" or "fantastic," was no accident. The very things that qualified the men to go to the moon, he believed, disqualified them to describe their journey with any lyricism. Think too deeply about what you're doing and the enormity of the thing can stop you from getting it done. And when one crewman violated that unwritten code of sangfroid, others, often as not, would stop him cold.

"Hey, let me ask you this," Apollo 10's Gene Cernan can be heard saying to his crewmates on a once classified closed-loop recording as the three men peered out the window at the moon below them. "Where do you suppose a planet like this comes from? Do you suppose it broke away from the Earth like a lot of people say?"

"I ain't no cosmologist," astronaut John Young answers with deliberate bluntness. "I don't care nothing about that."

NASA officials carefully screened for pilots who were made of tough physical stuff, and they chose well. In 1930, about the time most of the lunar astronauts were born, the life expectancy for a white American male was 59.1 years. In 2009, three-quarters of the former moonmen are still alive, and all of them are near or past 80 — not a likely result of chance. The doctors weren't looking equally hard for men who were free of poetry or fancy, but it was no surprise that they got that too. "They were all fighter pilots," says Dr. J.D. Polk, NASA's current chief of medical operations. "Psychologically speaking, they were a pretty self-selecting group."

But if the pilots weren't wired for wonder, they were wired for fun. After the successful mission of Apollo 11 — a serious, almost grimly flown affair — things loosened up, and the astronauts took advantage of the high adventure of their jobs. When the late Pete Conrad, commander of Apollo 12, hopped down from his lunar module, he eschewed any resonant words about small steps and giant leaps and went instead for a simple "whoopee!" Years later, I asked him if he had found it hard to enjoy himself on the surface, knowing that if the lunar-module engine didn't relight, he was never going home again.

"Nah," he said. "I was a happy guy on the moon." He got over his fear the first time he orbited Earth, when a failed retro-rocket would leave him just as stranded — and just as dead — as if he were stuck on the moon.

Conrad wasn't alone in enjoying his lunar mission. Most of the flights after Apollo 11 run together in the public mind, but all are recalled as a procession of bunny-hopping, buggy-driving American men, frequently joking, sometimes singing and generally having a grand time. "Man, this is a fun ride!" Duke exclaimed as he drove about the terrain in his collapsible moon car. Ken Mattingly, Duke's Apollo 16 crewmate, was reluctant even to look out the window of the orbiter too much, for fear that the next transcendent view would wipe out the previous one. "My mind was an erasable memory," he says. "It just deleted the last experience."

Even Apollo 14's Alan Shepard, known as the "ice commander" for the severe approach he sometimes took to his work, melted with delight at what he was doing. "You're ready to go out and play in the snow," he said to Edgar Mitchell as he helped the rookie astronaut climb into his suit before they left the lunar module.

Hard Landing
The fun ended fast, however. The longest of the lunar missions lasted just 12 days; the shortest, about a week. When the first three flights that landed on the moon — Apollo 11, 12 and 14 — came home, the astronauts were swaddled in biocontainment suits and hustled into quarantine, where they spent three weeks under observation in case they had picked up any lunar pathogens. The first good look the world got of Apollo 11's Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins after their return was thus through the window of a trailer on the deck of the recovery ship U.S.S. Hornet, where they waved to President Richard Nixon and the crowd outside — a tableau Aldrin describes as a "circus spectacle." Later they were transferred to roomier quarters in Houston. Most people reckoned that the astronauts loathed the indignity of the nickel-a-peek display and the 21-day lockup, but the truth was that they rather needed it.

"The fact that we were in quarantine kept us connected to NASA," says Apollo 12's Alan Bean. "It was business, and that was good. It also gave us the chance to get the report written that we needed to write." Aldrin, who always had a powerful thirst, availed himself happily of the scotch the astronauts were provided during isolation and, when that ran out, took to filching some from the stash overseen by the lead doctor, who slept in the bedroom next to his.

The Apollo 15, 16 and 17 crews got no such slow re-entry time, and their return to the quotidian world was much more sudden. All of the men, however, had some hard adjusting to do. "The transition from 'astronaut preparing to accomplish the next big thing' to 'astronaut telling about the last big thing' did not come easily to me," Aldrin writes in his new book, Magnificent Desolation. The title is taken from the exquisite oxymoron he uttered when he first looked around himself on the lunar surface, but it aptly describes his early postmoon life as well. "What does a man do for an encore?" he asks.

For some, the encore was more of the same. Dick Gordon, who waited in orbit on Apollo 12 while his crewmates walked on the surface, wanted to return to the moon and get his boots dirty. Fred Haise, who was denied his chance to land when Apollo 13 was crippled, felt the same way. Haise was eventually tapped to command Apollo 18, and Gordon got 19 — but both missions were scrapped because of budget cuts. "On the way back, Pete, Dick and I talked about what we wanted to do," says Bean. "We all wanted to fly again."

Some did fly, others didn't, but nearly all felt at least some sense of drift. "People in wars have the same experience," says Mattingly. "They're in one world with one set of rules, and they step off an airplane and they're in another." NASA didn't help much. The agency exhaustively screened its candidate moonmen for emotional stability before clearing them for flight but kept a much more casual eye on them afterward. "I guess they figured we were big boys," says Lovell, a veteran of Apollo 8 and 13. Duke insists he didn't need a NASA nanny worrying over him anyway. "I was never a woe-is-me guy," he says.

But in failing to accept that woe sometimes was them, the space agency did its pilots a disservice, says psychologist and cultural anthropologist Lawrence Palinkas of the University of Southern California. Palinkas studies how people adapt to extreme environments and isolation, working with both NASA and groups planning polar expeditions. "What can make it hard for people like this is that they're so highly motivated and they wait so long for a mission," Palinkas says. "There can be a deep sense of loss once the goals have been accomplished, and there may be no adequate substitute."

Desk jobs in the shuttle program were available to many of the astronauts, but the new ship was a pickup truck compared with the glamorous Apollos. "Coming down from that Apollo high was hard," Duke concedes. Lovell had a more sudden moment of clarity. "I was looking at the design of the shuttle cockpit," he says, "and suddenly realized I was in the same room I was in years before when we were working on the F-4 [fighter]. I'd made a full circle." Not long after, he squared that circle and walked out the door.

For some, the next-best choice lay in politics, another high-stakes game, with the thrill of an election replacing the thrill of a liftoff — even if it was followed by the comparative drudgery of governing. Swigert ran successfully for Congress but died of cancer before he could be sworn in. Apollo 17's Harrison (Jack) Schmitt served a term as Senator from New Mexico, then lost his 1982 re-election bid to a candidate whose ads cheekily asked, "What on Earth has he done for you lately?"

Lovell was the target of tag-team pressure from the stars of the Republican Party — including Vice President Spiro Agnew — all of whom wanted him to run for the Senate from Wisconsin and all of whom he turned down. Finally, the phone rang in his Houston home with a call from the White House. This time it was the Commander in Chief calling to ask an active naval officer to step forward and serve his party. Lovell might have succumbed — but Nixon overplayed his hand. When Lovell mentioned that he'd had no time to raise campaign funds and that the primary was just weeks away, Nixon dismissed the problem. "Son," he said in a tone that was meant to be reassuring but was something else entirely, "money is no problem." Lovell, now well spooked, gave his final no.

The astronauts found their ways into postmoon careers, and some thrived. Apollo 8's Frank Borman became chairman of Eastern Airlines. Crewmate William Anders became chairman of General Dynamics, an aerospace, marine and defense contractor, earning a tip of the hat from the other astronauts as the richest of the former moonmen — though no one has ever done the comparative accounting that would confirm the rep.

Others went in less predictable directions. Bean, who has always had a deft way with a paintbrush and palette, turned to the easel full time, painting the subjects he knew best: the moon and the people who trod it. He has a new exhibition opening at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington this month. Duke, who insists he found no philosophical meaning in his time on the moon, nonetheless came home to find a deep well of Christian spirituality within himself and fills his time with secular and religious speaking. Apollo 15's James Irwin similarly found his faith and established a nonprofit religious group.

Apollo 14's Mitchell was the biggest surprise of all. He stunned most people upon his return when he revealed that during the mission he had quietly conducted experiments in extrasensory perception with two friends back home — trying to send them mental images from space. He later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, Calif., to study what some refer to as the paranormal — and what he insists is nothing of the kind. "Nothing is para once you know what's going on," he counters. "For some people, it's normal." Mitchell says it was his lunar journey that opened his eyes to something larger in the universe — what he refers to as his "ah-ha experience."

The challenging re-entry so many astronauts endured has prodded the modern NASA to pay closer mind to its pilots after they come home. "I'm not sure of what we did then, but it's nothing like what we do now," says Polk. "We do much more to lend assistance to astronauts and their families." Some of that assistance involves helping crews deal not with massive fame followed by indifference but with indifference from the start, as a public that has long since wearied of the space shuttle stops paying attention altogether.

Whether such anonymity might have benefited the Apollo veterans depends mostly on each man. Aldrin eventually found stability and sobriety and has since pursued a high-profile public-speaking and consulting career that in many ways cashes in on his lunar backstory. Armstrong, on the other hand, has retreated from public view, shunning interviews and appearances, with the exception of a visit to the White House every fifth year on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. I once asked Scott — who survived a near death experience with Armstrong when their Gemini 8 spacecraft spun out of control in Earth orbit in 1966 — if perhaps his old crewmate's Salinger act was inappropriate for a man who in some ways had been selected to make history rather than make it on his own. "Absolutely not," the ordinarily affable Scott said — almost snapped. "Neil did everything that was ever asked of him. He flew his missions, he did his p.r. tours. His life is his own."

It's that comradeship — forged in the fires of liftoff and set in the deep freeze of space — that may be the pilots' most enduring lunar legacy. Early in my work on the Apollo 13 book, I asked Lovell a question he'd been asked many times before: Did any member of his crew panic during the emergency return they made to Earth — particularly in the first few hours, when there was no reason to believe they'd even survive the night? Lovell answered that the three men had agreed never to discuss that matter with anyone else and never would. The obvious inference was that of course someone had come unhinged — why else wouldn't he say otherwise? — but that conclusion, I came to understand, was wrong. The confidentiality of the lunar cockpit was an absolute thing, whether breaching the secrecy would cast the crew in a good light or a bad one. In the long history of the human species, there are only 24 men who have come to understand that bond. The rest of us can still only guess at it.

Kluger is a senior editor and writer for TIME and co-author of Apollo 13