Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brothers Under The Skin: 'Island of Clouds' And The Myth of the Astronaut as Hero

NASA photo, July 18, 1969: " The face of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, is seen in this color reproduction, taken from the third television transmission, from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-lunar journey toward the moon. Aldrin is inside the Lunar Module (LM)."
In the early days of the space program NASA, aided by a questionable agreement with Life magazine, sought to portray the first astronauts as the embodiment of American values. Good husbands, fathers, family men, patriots, professionals. It would have been na├»ve even at that time to expect them all to be from the same cookie cutter mold. Perhaps that mold was legitimate in one dimension only: they were all competent, even outstanding, pilots.” - Dwayne Day, “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” published on The Space Review, May 15, 2017

[Joan Crawford] was a professional. We did one picture together. Our lives intersected. That’s it.” - Bette Davis played by Susan Sarandon in Feud: Bette and Joan

The subheadings in Dwayne Day’s piece “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” which was published in The Space Review in May, asked the reader, “What do we owe our heroes? What do our heroes owe us?” Day later added, “Our heroes are rarely who we want them to be.” Day underscored in his piece that the tempestuous Aldrin was the first of the Apollo astronauts to tarnish the luster of the “perfect Astronaut” image with his 1973 autobiography, Return to Earth. In that tome, Aldrin discussed the less pleasant aspects of his life in then-unprecedented detail, even dishing intimate details about his alcoholism, adultery, and depression, which were taboo topics at the time. While Aldrin’s achievements cannot be discounted, he has always been kind of an “odd bird” compared to his contemporaries.

Despite that, Aldrin wouldn’t be the last astronaut to dismantle the image of the “astronaut hero.” Walt Cunningham’s All-American Boys, originally published in 1977, functioned as the Ball Four of astronaut autobiographies. Cunningham spared very little in his reminiscences about his colleagues. Two more recent entries in the genre, Al Worden’s Falling to Earth and Donn Eisele’s Apollo Pilot (both co-written with Francis French) further tore down the image of the perfect Astronaut, the infallible knight clad in a white A7L spacesuit.

The Apollo astronauts, probably more than their shuttle counterparts, occupy a strange place in history. Many were test pilots, and all were suddenly thrust into an unforgiving spotlight with little to no warning. Some of them wore their “fame” with more dignity than others. One fictional book released in May, Island of Clouds by Gerald Brennan, furthers Day’s investigation into the myth of “astronaut as hero,” shedding light upon the “fame monster,” and the forced notion of brotherhood and camaraderie among the astronaut corps. Warning: minor book spoilers included.