Buzz Aldrin recalls trials, triumphs of moon landing, career as an astronaut

08/20/2013 6:34 PM

08/21/2013 9:54 AM

History indicates the moon landings might be the most brilliant achievement of humankind. And that Buzz Aldrin became the most troubled soul to land there.

He answers personal questions frankly, including how before the Apollo 11 mission he talked to NASA about letting him step on the moon first, ahead of Neil Armstrong. Anyone showing up at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson on Saturday will find him signing books and talking.

He says he still resents being introduced at public functions as the second person to walk on the moon. With Armstrong sitting beside him four years ago, he told an audience that he was second on the moon but the first to pee there.

“We astronauts all have our firsts,” Aldrin said. “Neil has his. I have mine.”

Aldrin was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology theorist who solved orbital rendezvous problems but whose ego made other astronauts cringe. He was the astronaut who admitted to alcoholism and depression.

In just the past few days, he was featured in a CNN story about space tourism, spoke at the Clinton Center in Little Rock about colonizing Mars and appeared on Conan O’Brien’s talk show.

He lands in Hutchinson this weekend, 44 years after he and Armstrong landed on the Sea of Tranquility. At 83, he’s got another book out, “Mission to Mars,” pleading with the U.S. to go to the red planet, arguing in chapter after detailed chapter how he has developed a cost-effective way to do it.

The second man

Aldrin flew 66 combat missions and shot down two enemy fighter jets in the Korean War. He earned a doctorate in astronautics at MIT by pioneering, for the space program, how to solve the problems of rendezvous in space.

He had by far the best space walk before the moon landings, on the Gemini 12 mission. Fellow astronauts, in their own books, have said he is brilliant.

But Eugene Cernan, an astronaut on the Apollo 17 mission, ridiculed Aldrin in his 1999 autobiography “The Last Man on the Moon.”

Aldrin “came flapping into my office … like an angry stork” before the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, arguing that Aldrin and not Armstrong should be the first to step on the moon, Cernan wrote.

“Offensive and ridiculous,” Cernan wrote. “How Neil put up with such nonsense for so long before ordering Buzz to stop making a fool of himself is beyond me.”

“I ended up being accused of trying to overshadow my commander, and that was not my intent at all,” Aldrin said of this episode. He still thinks he has a point.

In all previous Gemini and Apollo space walk missions, he said, the junior member of the crew trained to make the dangerous space walk because the mission commander had his hands full training to fly the spacecraft.

No one had ever landed on the moon before. It was dangerous; Armstrong would pilot a craft that had no wings in a place where there was no air.

So Aldrin said he volunteered to take the lead on training for the most difficult assignments on the lunar surface: collecting the rocks they would take home.

“It was delaying our training … so I approached Neil and said that I felt it was delaying,” he said. “And that didn’t result in a commitment to see that a decision was made. So I went to the head of the Apollo program office and said we needed a decision to be made. … Shortly after that, there was the correct decision.

“I think I’m the only one introduced at every public function as being the second man on the moon of the first lunar landing of humans on the moon. I guess every time I hear that ‘second,’ I can’t help but feel kind of relegated to an inferior position.”

In all his career, Aldrin said, he has always been the junior, almost never the commander.

“I think I’ve suffered from my inability to put things in writing,” he said. “That’s a laziness, but also my inability to manage the people who support me, to manage the inspiration and innovative thoughts I have.”

He speaks with affection of Armstrong, who died last year.

“He was the most qualified astronaut because of his test pilot experience. … He was the sort of a commander that led by doing things.”

No hoax

In 2002 a conspiracy theorist ambushed Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and dared him to swear on a Bible that the moon landings were not faked.

He videotaped the encounter, and the video shows Aldrin repeatedly walking away. But then the guy called Aldrin a liar. Aldrin punched him in the jaw.

“He was bigger than I was, and he had the TV camera, and his first reaction was, ‘Hey, guys, did you get that? Did you get that?’

“I had to pay an attorney to have the Beverly Hills administration dismiss the charges of assault and battery.”

People who think the moon landing was a hoax puzzle him. A couple of years ago, he said, a lunar orbiter pointed a camera downward and shot clear pictures of the moon landing sites, including his. The photos clearly show footpaths.

“Not because you’re seeing the boot prints, certainly, but you’re seeing the spraying out of the lunar surface in a pattern of dust redistribution, which changes its color as seen from the satellite going over,” he said. “Forty-four years now, and those pathways are still visible.”

Serving his country

In 2009 in Dayton, Ohio, Aldrin, Armstrong and three other men who walked on the moon watched Cessna Aircraft’s Russ Meyer and others be inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame. And they saw again how strange celebrity is.

Dozens of people walked past Aldrin and lunar astronauts Cernan, Charlie Duke and Jack Schmitt as though they didn’t exist and swarmed around Armstrong. They pestered him as he tried to eat, making him stand up, pose for photos, shake hands. Armstrong couldn’t finish his meal.

Aldrin wanted such celebrity after 1969 and spent years suffering from its lack. In the 1970s, he said, he lost “a decade of productivity” to depression and alcoholism. He said he has been sober for 34 years.

He still appears nearly anywhere he’s invited: on “The Simpsons” TV show, spoofing himself, or on Conan. On “The Big Bang Theory.” At the White House, at the Smithsonian, at symposiums about Mars. He posts regularly to 813,221 followers on Twitter @TheRealBuzz.

“I’ve learned that I have to keep moving, keep in motion, keep my mind optimistic, looking at things that I feel I’m most capable of thinking and innovating about,” he said. “And if I take a pause from this, I get discouraged.”

It isn’t about personal celebrity, he said.

“Ever since entering West Point, to serve my country, that’s what motivates me – not the acquisition of wealth.”

Trip to Mars

In recent years, everyone from President George W. Bush to other astronauts have said we should go back to the moon. But Aldrin, in his new book “A Mission to Mars,” writes: “A second race to the moon is a dead end, a waste of precious resources, a cup that holds neither national glory nor a uniquely American payoff in either commercial or scientific terms.”

But the bigger problem, Aldrin said in this interview, is that Americans don’t seem to have the will to go anywhere. A mistake, he said.

The innovations that landed him on the moon, he said, also led to missile systems that Ronald Reagan used to intimidate the Soviet Union, a move that Aldrin said led directly to ending the Cold War. If we let this chance go, he said, we’ll fade in history.

“The space program is a long-term investment, and unfortunately, our legislative branch in Congress is not interested in long-term investments that don’t help them get re-elected,” he said. “The same thing is true of the executive branch, to a lesser degree.”

‘Total desolation’

On the moon, he said, he called out two words over the radio: “magnificent desolation.”

“The view as seen by human eyes of a part of the universe that hasn’t changed in hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “Totally lifeless, no atmosphere, black sky, no stars because of the brilliance of the sun. There’s no way you could find a more desolate place here on the surface of Earth.”

Most of this was recorded for history, with cameras and voice recordings.

But there was one other moment before that, right after their landing. It’s the moment Aldrin said he likes to remember most.

Armstrong handled the landing heroically, Aldrin has said, pushing through ominous computer alarms going off, taking manual control, saving them from crashing in a boulder field, diverting them – with only a few seconds of fuel left – to land safely on the surface.

“Engine stop,” Aldrin called out.

The two of them took a breath, alone with each other, 240,000 miles from home.

“We sort of looked at each other,” Aldrin said.

It was “probably the most unrecorded, unobserved moment” of the mission, he said.

“We either shook hands, or I remember … kind of clapping him on the shoulder.”

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