On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing we talk to the second human being ever to set foot on a planetary surface other than our own. Buzz Aldrin (right), Lunar Module pilot of Apollo 11, is the only surviving moonwalker from that legendary space mission and one of only 12 men to have walked on the Moon. Here, the all-American hero tells his story to Bay’s Nick Smith…
It was 50 years ago today. On 20th July 1969, at precisely 02:56:15 UTC, Commander Neil Armstrong of the United States Apollo 11 space mission took his ‘small step for [a] man’ and became the first human to set foot on the Moon. A crackle of static in the audio transmission meant that the small, but all-important, monosyllable ‘a’ was never distinctly heard by the 600 million glued to their televisions back on Earth. For such a small word, its absence had a devastating effect on the second part of Armstrong’s heroic statement, which was of course, ‘one giant leap for mankind’. Nineteen minutes later, Lunar Module pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr. followed his commander onto the unknown surface of this brave new world. The ‘astronaut-explorers’, as they were described in a NASA press release issued a few weeks before the Saturn V rocket lifted off to take three men into space – the third was Michael Collins, ‘the quiet one’ – had arrived. The following day, the New York Times ran with that most perfect of headlines, four words that said it all: ‘MEN WALK ON MOON’.
Apollo 11 was, and still is, one of the greatest things we’ve ever done. Don’t take my word for it. I spoke to BBC Science Editor David Whitehouse, whose new book Apollo 11: The Inside Story is just about the best there is on the subject. He reckons that in ten thousand years’ time, when historians come to write down the defining achievements of the 20th century, “they might mention the uncapping of nuclear energy or the unravelling of DNA. But above those, they will write of the first humans to walk on the Moon. Children will still be listening to the words of Neil Armstrong as he stepped out of the Lunar Module. We don’t have the words of Christopher Columbus, but the words of Neil Armstrong will be with us for ever.” This is a view shared by The Sky at Night presenter, space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who told me that the Apollo programme was “the greatest of all adventures. Ever since I was a kid, watching those grainy black and white TV broadcasts, I’ve wanted to be an astronaut.” But more import-antly, I spoke with Buzz Aldrin who, when asked to put into words the sign-ificance of the Apollo 11 space mission, described it as ‘a cardinal event’.
Of the 12 men ever to have walked on the Moon, only 4 are still with us. And so, for me to chat with someone who’s done something so ‘out of this world’ was a huge honour. Next time you look up at the Moon, stop and think – really think – that once there were humans walking on it. How did they get there? How did they get back? What was it like? Over the course of an hour I managed to ask Buzz these very questions. And although he’s answered each one more times than he can remember, he remained good-natured, genuinely wanting to spread the word about Apollo 11. This might have something to do with the fact that these days he’s now a professional space ambassador. But it might also have more to do with him wanting people to believe. As pathetic as it may sound, there are still conspiracy theorists who think that the Lunar Landings were faked by the US government. This annoys Buzz to the point where he once famously punched a journalist that had called him a liar and a coward to his face. Not something you want to do to an ex-fighter pilot who flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War, let alone a character that signs his emails ‘Rocket Man’.
“I called it magnificent desolation,” says Buzz describing his first impressions of the Moon after descending the flimsy aluminium ladder from the Lunar Module to the grey powdery surface. “The magnificence was the achievement for humanity, for us to be able to get there. But the scene was so desolate, totally lifeless. It probably hasn’t changed much in 100,000 years. It’s not a hospitable place. You have to really have a very compelling reason to want to go there.” That reason was nothing to do with the spirit of humanity, the thirst for knowledge or even the thrill of exploration. In 1962, President John F Kennedy famously said: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But of course, what Kennedy – who was assassinated before Apollo 11 achieved its aims – really wanted was to get the upper hand in the Cold War by beating the Russians. The US had been shocked by Russia putting Sputnik – the first artificial Earth satellite – into space. They were shocked when they put the first dog – Laika – into space, and by the time they’d sent Yuri Gagarin up there, shock didn’t begin to describe it. The race to the Moon was now a proxy war, and with the death of Kennedy it became a debt of honour, with lunar success becoming central the American national identity. “When the President said we were going to the Moon,” says Buzz, “the Air Force had already been studying missions to the Moon – including manned flight – so it wasn’t a totally unexplored area.” He goes on to say that while the Russian space programme was disorganised and decentralised, NASA had just one aim: to get astronauts to the Moon.
“What I remember most,” says Buzz, “was the glance between Neil Armstrong and myself just a few seconds after we had touched down, when the engines were shut off. We had just completed the most critical door-opening for exploration in all of humanity. When Neil said those comforting words – ‘the Eagle has landed’ – that was the moment of triumph. Seen from the Moon, every other human except the three of us was up there on that small object in the sky called Earth. We knew that the pressure was on us to make the landing. If you don’t make the landing you can’t go outside. But that’s not the way the press saw it. For them the most important thing was going down the ladder. But that was the easy bit.
Neil was an excellent photographer and he took that great picture. I was walking along the lunar surface and he said, ‘hey stop,’ and he just took it. We call it the ‘visor picture’ because the reflection in the visor shows the landing craft and the white-suited astronaut taking the picture, as well as my shadow. People ask me why it is such an iconic shot. I’ve got three words: Location. Location. Location.” Buzz recalls that while millions scrutinised their every move back home, “we didn’t get to see any of this until we were on the aircraft carrier. And I had this impulse to tap Neil on the shoulder and say: ‘Hey Neil, we missed the whole thing!’ It was a proud moment to be an American citizen to salute that flag on the surface of the Moon.”
I asked Buzz what effect going to the Moon had on him: “For sure Apollo 11 changed my life. But each individual has their lives changed by different events.” He’s referring to what can only be described as coming down to Earth with a bump. As strange as it might sound, upon his return, for all the tickertape parades, the handshakes with presidents and royalty of all nations, the adoration of the American public and the opportunity to cash-in and become wealthy, Buzz’s world collapsed. Unable to answer the question ‘what’s next?’ the all-American hero slid into depression, unemployment and alcoholism. He became the world’s most famous down-and-out, and as he says, “it’s harder to be a bum when you’re a celebrity that when you’re no-one.” With the US military unwilling to tolerate its heroes being anything other than perfect, Buzz’s career tanked. Forced out of the military, he became a second-hand car salesman trying to unload Cadillacs onto a public that only want-ed to shake the hand of an astronaut. But, proving that you can’t keep a good man down, Buzz bounced back, his salvation in the form of the banking heiress Lois Driggs Cannon. They married on Valentine’s Day in 1988, and ever since Buzz has been a sober freelance astronaut advising governments and schoolchildren the world over on how to get back into space. It seemed that the real-life Superman needed his own Lois to get back up and running. But there was no fairy-tale ending: Buzz and Lois divorced acrimoniously in 2012.
Buzz says that, put simply, going to the Moon “was a demonstration of our evolution and our capabilities. We learned quite a lot, and it is now appropriate to build on that, and to move onto a much bigger and grander objective by going to another planet. Not just to visit it a few times, but to set up a sustaining presence. Eventually humans will leave the Solar System and go to other stars. Not in my lifetime. But we will learn how to do that.” Of the people that were alive when Armstrong and Aldrin planted their flags and footprints on the Moon, few of us are left. It’s a crazy statistic, but three-quarters of the people alive today have never been around to witness humans walking on another celestial body.
At the same time, a quarter of the people alive today have always known a world in which it is routine for humans to live off-world on the International Space Station. Put these two ideas together and you have a classic ‘Lucy and the football’ moment. Remember that Peanuts cartoon? The one in which every time Charlie Brown runs up to kick the ball, Lucy takes it away at the last minute and Charlie ends up flat on his back? That’s how the ‘Moon Generation’ feels today. But there is hope that we could get there again. And soon. While Buzz huffs and puffs about scarcity of funds, lack of political will and generally gets upset because things ain’t being what they used to be, we have a new lunar dawn ushered in by James F Bridenstine, since April 2018 the thirteenth administrator of NASA. The former US Congressman, who saw tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, freely admits that he is “the first NASA administrator never to have seen humans walk on another world,” which is all the more reason for his viewing now as “time to go back.” When this happens, he says, we’re going to do things differently.
According to Bridenstine, the next time we shoot for the Moon, our endeavours won’t be in response to a Cold War race to put ‘flags and footprints’ on an unclaimed extra-terrestrial colony. It will be in pursuit of science for the benefit of mankind. “We are the pioneers, the visionaries and the doers. We will add our names to history’s greatest adventurers.” Fine words indeed. But of course, none of this can happen without money, and so rather than badgering bankrupt govern-ments for a few dollars, he’s touting for big bucks from global business “at a level we’ve never seen before. The degree of excitement is as high as it has ever been. It is infectious. Everybody is ready to go back to the Moon.” And when we do, we’ll at last be able to say that we didn’t give up on humankind’s greatest adventure, and that these decades of waiting were just a minor blip in proceedings.