Buzz Aldrin has been on many journeys in his remarkable life, and in some respects the one to the moon was the least challenging. Being the second man to walk on the moon in July 1969, stepping down from the landing craft 20 minutes after Neil Armstrong, gave him eternal name recognition, but it also brought a heap of problems in the decade that followed — alcoholism, depression, two divorces. He was on the moon for two and a half hours; his post-Nasa breakdown lasted for a decade as he looked for something to fill the space left by … space.
But now, praise the Lord and Alcoholics Anonymous, 79-year-old Buzz is sitting in front of me, tanned, alert, as sharp as the Apollo 11 badge pinned to his colourful tie, chiding me for waving the mic around carelessly, telling a fan who is showing him his grandfather’s 60s space scrapbook that he doesn’t sign autographs, treading the careful divide between ego and generosity, self-regard and fellowship that is essence-of-Buzz.
Armstrong lives in near-seclusion at his Ohio farm, so Buzz — off the booze for 30 years — has come to represent the crazy glory of manned space travel, and is in London as part of a global mission to get us interested in space again. He’s also flogging a book, Magnificent Desolation, which charts his rise, fall and return to equilibrium. Major Tom eventually made it back to Earth, and has quite a tale to tell.
The key thing when interviewing Aldrin is not to get too technical. He is a man who would happily fill the entire hour with a discussion of docking manoeuvres. I also make the mistake of mentioning God — he secretly took communion moments after the module landed on the moon (”My soul didn’t belong to Nasa,” he says) — and he gives me an impenetrable 10-minute explanation of the evolution of his faith. He is nothing if not systematic, which is great for the meticulous planning of moon landings, less good for quick life surveys. But get him off technicalities and AA-style moral lessons, and he is far more articulate and engaging than most interviewers would have you believe.
He has always had problems putting into words the grandeur of that moment 40 years ago. ”People want to know what it felt like,” he says. ”They want us in a few words to generate the enthusiasm that the world had as they contemplated what we were about to do. Well, what it felt like is something that we trained for. We were trying to treat it as calmly as we could and perform to the best of our ability. We tried to repress feelings of exuberance, of disappointment, and be proud and responsible people accomplishing the task that was given to us. That sounds kind of boring. Except that what we did was kind of earth-shaking.”
I ask him whether he was disappointed to be the second person to set foot on the moon. He tries to have it both ways. ”We’re dealing with very competitive people who always want to get the most out of the opportunities that come along, even though I did not relish the idea of speeches, celebrations and being on a pedestal as a hero. I didn’t enter the space programme to want to do that. Being first outside the spacecraft would bring much more responsibility, and I really wasn’t looking for that.”
I press a little, and you can sense the 40 years of frustration at being labelled second. ”I was continually being asked, ‘Didn’t it bother you?’, and always being introduced as the second man on the moon. That is a degrading title right off the bat, instead of being a member of the first landing mission to reach the moon.”
What comes across most strongly in his description of the mission in the book is its black comedy — and the way that he, Armstrong and Michael Collins, who was orbiting the moon in the command module, really were flying on a wing and a prayer. Aldrin worries that he will close the hatch to the landing craft, locking out him and Armstrong and condemning them to a slow, oxygen-starved death; he frets when he finds it difficult to plant the American flag in the dusty lunar soil and imagines half a billion viewers laughing at his public humiliation; and he has to use a felt-tip pen as a circuit breaker when a switch breaks in the module. ”We were human beings carrying out a very demanding task,” he says. ”We had to improvise.”
That was the appeal of the Apollo missions: these crop-haired thirty-somethings dicing with death going somewhere no one else had been. Aldrin sees his role now as reactivating that spirit. He reckons we should go back to the moon, this time to develop it, and look to get to Mars in a couple of decades. ”We have to take the new generation with us, so they can say that their generation participated.” He’ll try anything to reach that new generation: he writes children’s books, is using Twitter (or Tweeter, as he calls it), and recently recorded a rap record called Rocket Experience with Snoop Dogg — one huge step for a man of a certain age.
Aldrin holds nothing back when talking about how bad things were when he fell to earth in the early 70s. He rejoined the US air force — he had been a fighter pilot — but his role as commander of a test pilot school didn’t work out, he quit the armed services at 42, started drinking, had an affair, suffered depression, his marriage broke up, he went through another brief marriage, and eventually found himself selling Cadillacs (or, rather, not selling — he was a terrible salesman) in Beverly Hills and becoming dependent on drink.
He outlines the reasons for his collapse in his somewhat convoluted Buzz-ese, but it’s a perceptive self-analysis: ”I inherited tendencies in different directions [depression and an addictive personality] and those directions, if you feed them with a life of perfection and discipline and then remove that all of a sudden, it’s probably going to go back to some of the more deep-seated concerns about self-worth and achievement. You did that as part of a team; what are you doing now? You get a job as a car salesman and you’re a horrible car salesman. What does that do to a person’s ego.”
What he did was to get sober, marry again — this time for keeps — and re-engage with space. It’s no accident that Buzz Lightyear, the space ranger in animated film Toy Story, is named after Aldrin, who shares his limitless enthusiasm for exploration. Lucky, though, that Aldrin abandoned his real name, Edwin, preferring the nickname given by one of his two sisters, who said ”buzzer” instead of ”brother”. Edwin Aldrin would just have been the second guy on the moon; Buzz Aldrin is the spaceman, if not quite declaring, ”To infinity and beyond”, convinced that eventually we can get pretty close.
Whatever happened to Neil Armstrong?
Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is intensely private and, in the eyes of the media, unforgivably normal. He is the JD Salinger of space exploration: the super-celebrity who shuns publicity. Having uttered the immortal line, ”That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” he hasn’t felt the need to say anything significant since.
It was thought that Aldrin, as pilot of the lunar module, would be first out, but according to James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, existing practice was overturned because Nasa chiefs realised the first man on the moon would have to bear the burden of fame for a lifetime and preferred the undemonstrative, ego-free Armstrong.
He retired from Nasa in 1971 to become professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, where he remained until 1979. Since then he has held numerous corporate directorships and, uncharacteristically, appeared in an ad campaign for Chrysler (reportedly to help the ailing firm, rather than for the cash). He lives with his second wife on a farm in southern Ohio, suspicious of fans and autograph hunters since discovering in 2005 that his barber had sold some of his hair to a collector for $3 000. – guardian.co.uk