A man on the moon
Buzz Aldrin's 40-year recovery from Apollo 11
There’s nothing like seeing Buzz Aldrin’s name on one’s caller ID. His office is calling from California for part two of our interview to discuss his second memoir, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon. He sounds more relaxed this time around: there are no phones ringing in the background, no email alerts sounding on his computer and he’s not shouting out fax instructions to a staff member.
At 79, the former Apollo 11 astronaut and the second man to walk on the moon is incredibly active, traveling the world promoting space exploration and his space lottery idea and also just enjoying himself. He’s been to the North Pole (on an expedition with ABC’s Hugh Downs for “20/20”) and is finalizing a South Pole excursion. A longtime avid diver—he’s the guy who developed many of NASA’s underwater training procedures for the Apollo program—he shot B-roll shark footage for the 1981 Bond flick For Your Eyes Only, visited the Titanic wreckage with a British documentary team and still dives regularly.
Aldrin’s schedule remains almost as packed as the world tour he and crewmates Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins took—or, rather, were subjected to, in his opinion—after their July 1969 moon flight. Along with his annual visit to the Paris Air Show, he’ll also make a number of appearances in observation of Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary.
“I’m standing by for NASA endorsement of different events,” he says, his gravelly voice assuming a cadence indicative of his many years of military training. He says he’ll squeeze in some sort of book tour when he can. But what he really wants is a spot on Oprah’s show. “I would appreciate that invitation. . . . This is a book that’s about a human,” he pauses, then laughs, “drama.”
Magnificent Desolation is an account of Aldrin’s difficult years—decades, really—following the moon landing. He discusses alcoholism (no, he wasn’t drunk when he punched that Apollo hoax theorist), infidelity, divorce, financial troubles, a frequently strained relationship with his father, depression and a stalled career, among other things. He’s right, this is definitely Oprah territory. As hard as it has been for Aldrin (and many of his fellow Apollo astronauts) to talk about their experiences in space—more on that later—you’d think he would have found it nearly impossible to open up about personal matters, or that it was perhaps difficult to revisit some of the most trying periods of his life.
“No, I don’t think so,” Aldrin says. “The stories, the photographs, the activities have been related in progressive interviews over 30 years now. It’s just a question of deciding: what is the output going to be? Are we looking for a dramatic movie to reach large numbers of people, or are we going to try to put more detail, more things down in writing because there probably won’t be another real chance to do that.”
He spent less than a year working with co-writer Ken Abraham and also bringing in other people for interviews. “It was quite satisfying to renew some of those acquaintances,” he says. There were astronauts, family members and Aldrin’s children. “[to get their] perspective now on their adolescent observations, and teen-aged and subsequent witnessing of the progressions in my life,” Aldrin says somewhat ruefully.
Magnificent Desolation starts on a high note, though: July 16, 1969, the morning of the Apollo 11 launch. It makes for a great opener. “It always has,” Aldrin laughs. He takes readers through that morning and does a marvelous job of putting the technology of the day in perspective for those used to 21st-century devices: “Many modern mobile phones have more computing power than we did. But those computers enabled us to measure our velocity changes to a hundredth of a foot per second, determine rendezvous and course corrections, and guide our descent . . . to the moon. You couldn’t do that with a slide rule.”
Aldrin spends the first three chapters in space, describing what he saw and how he felt about it. He describes the astronauts’ relief at having landed successfully, the deafening silence once the Lunar Module’s engines shut down, planting the American flag (“I still think it’s the best-looking flag up there out of all six”), and just wanting to sleep on the return flight to Earth. He writes about the mission’s iconic images, including the ones he shot of his footprint: “Framed in the photo was the evidence of man on the moon—a single footprint. . . . That’s kind of lonely looking, I thought. So I’d better put my boot down, and then move my boot away from the print, but only slightly so it’s still in the frame. . . .”
That’s a lot more than he’s willing to say over the phone. The question, the one every interviewer has to ask, is met by a pause just this side of uncomfortable. “Well, I know it would be nice to pinpoint, but there was a continuity associated with kind of moving beyond each achievement successfully and the culmination is being in the Pacific Ocean,” he concludes with a laugh.
OK, but is there one thing in particular, one tiny detail about being on the moon that stands out even after all this time? “We were sightseeing, looking back and seeing the gradually diminishing size of the back side of the moon, and I think most everyone who’s seen it would say the crater named after the Russian pioneer Tsiolkovsky is probably the most unique feature that stands out. You gotta take our word for it,” he says, his voice becoming slightly mischievous, “because only 24 people have seen it, plus the cameras.”
Though he gets why people feel compelled to tell him where they were on the night of July, 20, 1969, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life reliving those seven hours on the moon. Instead, he’s interested in promoting continued space exploration and developing new rocket technology (he holds a couple of patents for rocket design).
“I’m known as an astronaut, and I am still thrilled with that designation,” he writes in Magnificent Desolation. “But I don’t want to live in the past; as long as I am here on Earth, I want to be contributing to the present, and I want to stride confidently into the future.”