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A giant leap?

Naturevolume 444page424 (2006) | Download Citation


Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest

Gerard J. DeGroot New York University Press: 2006. 352 pp. $29.95 0814719953

Dark Side of the Moon stands, and falls, on its cunning soundbites. With a cheeky rhetorical flourish, Gerard DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St Andrews, UK, attacks the integrity of the American Moon-landing programme of the 1960s. Thankfully, he does not go so far as to suggest that the landings never really occurred, being merely part of a US government conspiracy to fool the Soviet Union about the United States' strategic capability in the Cold War, but the book's presentation is almost as fanciful.

Apollo 11 launched a nation's hopes as the United States raced to the Moon. Credit: NASA

Serious research into the embedded agendas of the US space programme is well worth undertaking, and many of the questions raised by this book are worthwhile. To what extent did myths constructed by the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and sustained by NASA, manipulate the US drive to the Moon? What do the Apollo missions tell us about the growth of the technocratic mentality? How did nostalgia for Apollo corrupt America's subsequent space efforts? Several books have profitably explored such matters, notably Walter A. McDougall's The Heavens and the Earth (Basic Books, 1985). Certainly there is more to learn. DeGroot could have added fresh insight if only he had conducted substantive research instead of filling his book with baseless assertion and arm-waving polemic.

The most grievous defect lies not in what DeGroot does not understand about the US lunar programme, but rather what he could have easily ascertained, but did not, about the history of the Soviet programme. His indictment of Apollo hinges on the implicit notion that the Americans were the only ones racing to the Moon. But as Asif A. Siddiqi's groundbreaking Challenge to Apollo (NASA, 2000) explained, the Soviets made a concerted effort to beat the United States to the Moon. Siddiqi's monumental 1,000-page book is one of the most important space-history books ever published. DeGroot fails to cite it and seems to be unaware of its existence.

The author is more adept at turning a phrase than erecting a solid edifice based on original source materials and exhaustive research. He states oh-so-matter-of-factly that the words uttered by Neil Armstrong when stepping off the Eagle were “canned” — a “freeze-dried slogan”, a “meaningless” statement, “prepared earlier and then taken into space along with the Tang and the tubes of hamburgers”. With just a little research the cynical author could have discovered that Armstrong's “one small step” was not in the least bit canned; inside the Lunar Excursion Module, the commander of Apollo 11 formulated it in the hours between landing and stepping down off the ladder. Nor did Apollo 11, incidentally, carry Tang or tubes of hamburgers.

For DeGroot, the Moon landing marked a “high point” in “America's love affair with science and technology”, but also a decline in so much else about US society. Savouring the irony, he juxtaposes the capacity of Americans to build the sophisticated machinery needed to take them to the Moon with their inability any longer to build a decent car. While Ford Pintos exploded and AMC Gremlins fell apart, he says, Americans “arrived at parties to celebrate the lunar landing in Toyotas, Datsuns, Volkswagens, and Renaults” — another great soundbite, but one lacking fuel because, in 1969, imports made up a small fraction of the US car population, with Renault barely a blip on the screen.

In his preface, DeGroot relates that the Americans who walked on the Moon were his childhood heroes but, unlike the rocket scientists and spaceflight enthusiasts, he grew out of it, never succumbing to the sexual appeal of the rocket ship: “The tall, slender phallic tube sits on its pad while men who yearn for youth trade in techno-babble. The adventure appeals to most boys, some men, very few girls, and almost no women. Freud probably had a lot to say about this sort of thing.” DeGroot is not the first to make the phallus comparison; others have argued that the language of engineering and rockets has been particularly sexist. But he does not reference any of those analyses, either. Nor did he look for data that could have shown that his categorical statement about women and spaceflight is shaky.

Having previously published what he describes as a depressing book on the history of the atomic bomb, DeGroot claims he hoped for spiritual uplift by turning his attention to a history of the Moon landings. But forlorn was he to find, in place of his childhood heroes, “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues, tyrants, and even a few criminals”. Apollo was not a high-water mark for our species, he says, but “a brilliant deception, a glorious swindle”.

“Hubris took America to the Moon” is DeGroot's thesis, but all he really proves is that hubris sometimes writes a book.

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  1. professor of history, Auburn University, Auburn, 36849, Alabama, USA

    • James R. Hansen


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