Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest
Gerard A. DeGroot's survey summarizes other volumes about the first 25 years of the U.S. human spaceflight program. On top of works by William E. Burrows, Paul Dickson, Howard McCurdy, Walter McDougall, Tom Wolfe, and others, DeGroot then stacks an upper stage of unconventional analysis. Though not included in his bibliography or notes, [End Page 169] readers of William Sims Bainbridge's The Spaceflight Revolution of 1976 will find much of DeGroot's argument familiar. The Apollo program was a "brilliant deception" and "glorious swindle," created by "a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues, tyrants, and even a few criminals" (xi, xiv). "Scheming politicians," "tricksters" (i.e., Wernher von Braun), and profit hungry aerospace managers cooperated with a "weapons industry" that was "an octopus whose tentacles held politicians, academics, and financiers in a steely grip" and created a "meaningless contest" that "fleeced" citizens for an "ego trip to the Moon" (xii, 87, 98).
Obviously, conspiracy is at the center of DeGroot's argument. This is a corrective to standard technoutopian triumphalisms. The author, however, too often tries to substitute literary flourishes for sustained research. The military-industrial complex point above, for instance, is affirmed, not discussed. Corruption in aerospace contracting, meanwhile, merits half a page; DeGroot then concludes "And you thought Apollo was a story about heroes" (l53). Rhetorical?, yes; persuasive?, no.
The same characterizes the discussion of popular attitudes. For the first 9 chapters, "public opinion" is a monolith reflected (or, more often, created) by journalists. "A hysterical public, egged on by an ignorant and irresponsible media, engaged in an orgy of fear" after Sputnik (62). Rhetorical orgies aside, DeGroot does not mention polls or how "fickle" or "hard to measure" opinion actually was until page 188.
DeGroot's critiques are also familiar. (Monolithic) "science" was sacrificed on the altar of politics and prestige. Earth-focused weather, communication, navigation, and spy satellites had far more important and enduring effects than astronauts. The first point is simplistic. Space scientists in new specialties (i.e. geologists who became "comparative planetologists") "raced" to get robotic spacecraft to Mars, Venus, and beyond before the Russians, and spent billions doing it. The latter point is very true (but, again, left unde-veloped).
DeGroot too regularly over-reaches in his arguments. Saying that "for most Americans, the [thermonuclear weapons] 'missile gap' and the [Cold War prestige-based] space race were two sides of the same coin" is a big, bold generalization (92). It also needs substantiation the author does not provide. Saying that space was an "all-consuming [cultural] distraction" and that "America was lost in space" in the 1960s equates young white males in high school and college with technical interests with everybody of every race, age and gender (183). Accuracy takes second place to simplicity. Sixteen pages later, DeGroot admits "enthusiasm for NASA was a manifestation of socioeconomic standing" (l99).
DeGroot's book will puzzle or infuriate space advocates. Accordingly, it will also be a good text to use in advanced courses and graduate programs. At its best, it strikes right to central points. At its worst, it is overblown phrasing masquerading as analysis. Used carefully, DeGroot's book helps clarify how transcendent, prestige-based, space projects can get lavish funding for very short periods; while pragmatic programs providing clear and immediate Earthly benefits enjoy enduring popularity.