Sunday, August 26, 2012

The post-Moonwalk letdown

None of [the Apollo astronauts] found celebrity easy, least of all the crew of Apollo 11, for whom there were no predecessors to show them how it was done. Caught between a celestial rock and a hard place, it was clear that there was little future for them as astronauts and they possessed no other obvious marketable skills, save their celebrity, for the management of which they had no training at all. They were world famous but they were on the same basic pay rates as other US military officers: most were captains, making about $17,000 a year. (On their missions to the Moon, they were entitled only to the standard $8 per diem for being away from base, with deductions for ‘accommodation’ provided in the spaceship.)

And so, at the most mundane level, all were faced with problems of re-entry into the civilian economy. Only Young was still working for Nasa when the interviews for Moondust were done. He retired at the end of 2004... Others cashed in any way they could. Some sold real estate; some went into business (beer distribution, insurance, cable TV, small airlines, tugboats, a minor oil company); some consulted for TV shows and movies dealing with space travel; one or two took on the role of salesmen for the commercial potential of further lunar exploration... Armstrong held a university position in aerospace engineering during the 1970s, and Schmitt served one term as a Republican senator from New Mexico. Many were sought after as corporate front men, doing nothing more specific than lending their names to whatever business it was whose customers might want to meet a Moon Man. ...

There was, of course, a series of ‘as told to’ books, and there was public speaking, though none of the Moon Men seems to have enjoyed it or was much good at it, and Armstrong and Young are Mogadon Men of the highest order. There are fees for appearances at Star Trek conventions, where the TV actors tend to draw bigger crowds than the real thing. Autographs bring in a reliable stream of revenue for the majority of astronauts willing to meet the demand. Armstrong stopped signing about ten years ago, so his are scarce and expensive. Personal autograph fees range from about $20 to much more than that for signatures on rare documents or autographs that complete an Apollo set. An ‘authenticated’ signed Neil Armstrong photograph retails online at $2495, while bidding for either a Charlie Duke or an Al Bean autographed postcard on eBay starts as low as $19.99. There is a sad-making account in Moondust of Gordon sitting practically alone at his signing-table at a Trekkie convention in Las Vegas. ...

After their missions were over, there was depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, wife and child abuse. Divorce was the norm. Some divorces followed hard on return from the Moon; Young’s occurred before his flight. Rock-star celebrity brought the usual number of groupies and some of the wives were already on the edge because of what they had to put up with during their husbands’ extended training and the mission itself.
--Steven Shapin, London Review of Books, on the cost of unmatchable early-life glory. HT: Marginal Revolution