Moon Man

On the 40th anniversary of his lunar landing, Buzz Aldrin still has personal frontiers to conquer.

buzz aldrin
Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. tests the water temperature before setting sail at Miami Beach during a 1933 family vacation.
Photo by Bettmann/Corbis.

“We don’t have emotional recorders so that you can unequivocally answer that,” he admits when asked what it felt like to tread on the lunar landscape. “It’s real easy to manufacture what you think the people want to hear.  But that’s not very honest.”

Aldrin’s moonwalk with Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, clearly is the crowning achievement in the life of New Jersey’s only lunar astronaut. Perhaps he peaked too early. Following the flight of Apollo 11, Aldrin suffered through a lost decade. Lacking the goals and focus of his days in the space program, he turned to alcohol, pondered suicide, and struggled to find his place back on Earth. At one point, hard up for money, he worked as a car salesman, pitching Cadillacs to the likes of Watergate conspirator H.R. Haldeman.
Now Aldrin has explored his personal struggle in the candid memoir, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon (Harmony Books, June 2009), written with Ken Abraham. The title represents one attempt to capture his sense of walking on the barren surface of the moon.

“Armstrong described the lunar surface as ‘beautiful,’” Aldrin says. “I thought to myself, It’s not really beautiful. It’s magnificent that we’re here, but what a desolate place we are visiting.” In the book, he writes, “Those words seemed to describe my own inner turmoil as I thought about the days ahead.”

Why did he choose this moment for frank discussion? “I just felt that the time has come to look back at where I am and where I’ve come from,” Aldrin told New Jersey Monthly from his Southern California home.
Where Aldrin came from is Montclair. He grew up in a house that his father bought just months before the stock market crash of 1929. At Montclair High School, Aldrin was a pole-vaulter and a 165-pound center on an undefeated state-championship football team. That didn’t make much of an impression at his next stop: the United States Military Academy at West Point.  “They were looking for much bigger guys with much bigger records,” he laughs.

During the Korean War, Aldrin flew 66 combat missions as a jet-fighter pilot. Later, he earned a PhD. in astronautics from MIT. Chosen by NASA for the space program in 1963, Aldrin made his first trip into space as pilot of Gemini 12. He cracked the Apollo flight rotation only after his friend and classmate Ed White was killed in a launchpad fire during a training exercise.

In recalling the moon mission, Aldrin rattles off his lunar activities with a nonchalance that belies their enduring significance. “I pranced in front of the camera to demonstrate the mobility you have [with so little gravity], collected a bunch of rocks, set up experiments, took a bunch of pictures, put up a flag, saluted the flag, unveiled a plaque which said, ‘We came in peace for all mankind,’ and made an appointment to have dinner with the President.” But it was his knowledge of engineering and his gift for improvisation that may have saved the mission. Aldrin used a felt-tip pen to fix a broken circuit breaker on the lunar module’s homeward trip.

Tellingly, on the tenth anniversary of the moon landing, Aldrin was asked if he would like to return to the moon. While Armstrong and Michael Collins—the third member of the Apollo 11 crew—said they would jump at the chance, Aldrin demurred. “I’m not sure I would go again.”

With so much time having passed since the Apollo 11 mission, Aldrin is interested in setting straight the historical record. While the moon landing is now largely remembered as an apolitical event and an achievement for all mankind, Aldrin reminds us that the space program began in the 1960s as another front in the Cold War. “It was designed to have an impact on the stalemate over Mutually Assured Destruction with the Soviet Union,” he says. “Us reaching the moon convinced Gorbachev and other leaders that the Soviet Union couldn’t compete with the U.S., so they revised their agenda. But people have short memories.”

Aldrin’s account of his life after the moonwalk reads like a rock star’s confessional. Among his admissions: sneaking into a NASA doctor’s stash of booze while in quarantine after the Apollo 11 moon landing. “My friend Jack Daniel’s, however, never failed to lift my spirits, albeit falsely,” he writes. Aldrin further owns up to thoughts of suicide, drunken car crashes, several affairs, and a couple of messy divorces.

After several false starts, Aldrin conquered his addiction and his depression, and even served as chairman of the National Association of Mental Health. He detailed much about his early struggles in a previous memoir, Return to Earth (Random House, 1973).

Throughout, Aldrin has retained his feisty spirit. In 2002, a conspiracy theorist named Bart Sibrel approached Aldrin with a camera crew and insisted that the moon landing was a fraud. After initially ignoring him, Aldrin finally lost his temper when Sibrel called him “a coward and a liar and a thief.” Aldrin punched Sibrel squarely in the nose. The resulting video clip has become a cult classic on YouTube. And even at age 79, Aldrin continues to seek out new adventures here on Earth. “I’ve been on a Russian nuclear icebreaker to the North Pole. I’ve been on a French submersible down two and a half miles in the ocean to the Titanic. I’m planning on driving a Hummer to the South Pole with a team in December,” he says.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Aldrin remains an outspoken advocate for further space exploration. He is disappointed that the upcoming Constellation project is merely retracing his steps by returning astronauts to the moon by the year 2020.

His more ambitious suggestion is to land on another planet. “Mars is far more attractive as an outpost colony for earthlings than the moon is,” he says. Toward that end, he’s assembled a blue-ribbon committee of scientists and engineers and used his own stature to meet with officials in the Obama administration. His plan would see Americans land on Mars in as few as twenty years—for the 60th anniversary of the moon landing—and use a mission to Mars as a basis for further exploration in the solar system.

“It doesn’t require major investments at this point, but we need to establish a clear pathway,” says Aldrin. “We invested a lot in becoming leaders in the 1960s and 1970s and we’d like that to not go the way of Chrysler and GM.”

Allen St. John is the author of The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day in American Sport.

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