The old men of Apollo

Apollo 14 crew back home

Apollo 14 astronauts in the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS New Orleans after their return from the Moon in February 1971. Left to right: Stu Roosa (command module pilot); Alan Shepard (commander); Ed Mitchell (lunar module pilot). Mitchell is the only surviving member of the crew: Roosa died in 1994 and Shepard died in 1998. (NASA)

I grew up in a world where people used to walk on the Moon. I was born two months before Apollo 16; the last moon landing, Apollo 17, took place before my first birthday. The moon landings took place in what was virtually a historical instant: only four brief years separated the first flight to the Moon, Apollo 8 in December 1968, from the last, Apollo 17 in 1972. We pivoted, as a species, from dreaming of going there to leaving it behind in hardly any time at all.

The astronauts who went there, from the first five NASA astronaut groups, were roughly the same age — peers who, for the most part, fought the same wars and flew the same aircraft before their selection as astronauts. And, as I’ve said before, they’re getting all getting old together, too. The surviving moon voyagers range in age from 73 (Charlie Duke) to 81 (Frank Borman); of the 24 who have travelled to the Moon, 18 are still alive, and of the 12 who have walked its surface, nine are still with us.

I’m far from the only one who has noticed this, especially in the leadup to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing this Monday. See, for example, this article from The Globe and Mail’s July 4, 2009 issue:

Today, just nine of those who made moon walks are still alive, and there is a strong possibility that none of them will be around to see someone retrace their boot tracks. … [I]t’s unlikely there will be fresh boot prints in lunar soil any time soon. That means the only people who can give a first-hand account of what it’s like to visit another world are men now in their 70s and 80s.

And here’s a passage from Andrew Smith’s Moondust (,, an immersion-journalism look at what happened to the lunar astronauts after Apollo, where Smith encounters Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell for the first time:

Science has advanced and techology leapt forward at a dizzying rate, but in this one domain, Deep Space, their domain, there has been … nothing. So while the world has changed, we have changed, the pictures and deeds of the Moonwalkers have remained ever present, yet frozen definitively in the imagination as they were then, making sight of them as they are now a shock. It’s like Dorian Gray in reverse: they have a real age and a Moon age and your first impulse is to stamp your feet and cry, “How dare you be old!” Thinking about this reaction later, I flush with embarrassment.
For the man in front of me is old. He’s seventy-one,1 about five foot nine, with still-dark short hair, ruddy skin and a very modest paunch. …
And yet the instant he stands at the front of a lecture room, looks up and starts to speak, the years fall away like ice from a rising Saturn rocket. …2

There is a renewed sense, I think, that we have to get down these men’s experiences — exquisitely rare, shared by no one else — before they’re gone. That is at least part of the impetus behind Smith’s Moondust, which opens with Charlie Duke’s reaction to the 1999 death of Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad: “Now there’s only nine of us.”3 The reminiscences have been around since shortly after the landings themselves; now there’s a new urgency, and a flurry of new material.

In the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (,, the astronauts describe the moon voyages in their own words: with the exception of Neil Armstrong, legendary for his reclusiveness, everyone still alive who walked on the Moon is represented, as are Jim Lovell and Michael Collins. I’m impressed at just how sharp these guys still are, and what forces of personality — particularly Alan Bean and Charlie Duke — they remain.

First published in 1994, Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon (, is the definitive history of the Apollo program; it’s is based on more than 100 interviews, among other sources, but the material derived from those interviews is incorporated invisibly into a seamless narrative.

A different approach is taken by Francis French and Colin Burgess in their two-volume history of manned spaceflight in the 1960s, published in 2007: Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 (,, which I’ve just finished reading, covers the Mercury, Vostok and Voskhod programs; In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (, takes us from Gemini through the early days of Soyuz and Apollo to the Apollo 11 landing (that’s next in my reading pile). Here, the contemporary interviews are much more in the foreground, and the narrative follows the astronauts’ and cosmonauts’ lives far beyond the missions the chapters ostensibly cover, from their births to their funerals or the present day. Not only is this a different approach — it feels like an exercise in collective biography rather than a traditional historical narrative — but it’s based on different source material, i.e., the authors’ own interviews and research. At least that’s my impression from the first volume; I’m looking forward to volume two.

Reading volume one was all the more poignant in that it made extensive use of interviews with Mercury astronauts Gordo Cooper and Wally Schirra, who died in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Another uncomfortable reminder that time is running out.

1 That was then; Ed Mitchell is 78 now.

2 Andrew Smith, Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 55-56.

3 Smith, Moondust, 5.

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
Into That Silent Sea by Francis French and Colin Burgess
In the Shadow of the Moon by Francis French and Colin Burgess
Moondust by Andrew Smith
In the Shadow of the Moon (DVD)