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Get some rocks

May 01, 2009

Jack Ganssle-May 01, 2009

For thousands of years the moon has beckoned. But four decades ago a dozen men walked on its surface. They left, and we lost interest in sending people into deep space.

What happened to those guys?

This month I read Andrew Smith's Moondust (Harper Collins, 2005, NY: NY), which purports to be the story of the later lives of the moonwalkers. In truth, the book is a well-written but ultimately disappointing narrative of the author's search for what he thinks the astronauts should feel after waltzing on another planetoid. An unabashedly unspiritual man, Smith chases down these aging men in an effort to find how their journeys through space could instill some glimmer of happiness into his apparently barren life. Not recommended.

But he does paint some interesting portraits of the post-Apollo lives of some of the moonwalkers. I have often wondered what became of the others, the lonely six-pack left in lunar orbit, who quietly circled the moon in relative anonymity while their more famous colleagues left their footprints in the surface's dust.

Just weeks after I finished the book, Ken Mattingly, one of those Apollo Command Module Pilots, gave the keynote speech at this year's Embedded Systems Conference. I arrived a bit early. Patrick Mannion, editorial director of TechInsight's TechOnline, sat down next to me and we chatted. "Do you want to meet him?" he asked? Well, of course! But I declined, not wanting to be another in a four-decade line of admiring people who undoubtedly ask the poor man the same questions.

Admiral Mattingly strode onto the stage, fit and hale despite his 73 years. He spoke brilliantly, engagingly, and captivated the audience.

As anyone who reads space history--or watched Tom Hank's movie--knows, Mattingly was on the prime crew of Apollo 13, the mission almost lost due to the explosion of an oxygen tank. Possibly exposed to measles pre-launch, he was bumped from the flight. Before the catastrophe, he was pretty bitter about losing his slot on that mission, and said: "When I grow up I want to be Gary Sinise [Sinise played Mattingly in the movie], who gave an amateur performance of being miserable. I gave a truly Oscar-worthy performance!"

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