Buzz Aldrin is telling of the day he returned home from the moon. He, along with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, were to spend 18 days in a quarantine trailer to guard against contamination by lunar microbes. To pass the time, they played gin rummy.
“We kept hearing people say, ‘We did it!’” Aldrin says. “I looked at the TV in the trailer and saw people cheering and celebrating in India, Paris, all over the world. I tapped Neil on the shoulder and said, ‘Look, we missed the whole thing.’”
Now, decades after Aldrin first stepped on the surface of the moon — and because there’s no weather on the moon, his footprints are still there — the 79-year-old former astronaut this year will have another opportunity to celebrate. To mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing on July 20, he has written Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon. (“Magnificent desolation” is what Aldrin uttered on the moon to describe what he was seeing.) The book is a personal story of Aldrin’s voyage — one of the greatest achievements in the history of humankind. It tells the amazing story of the landing that came within seconds of failure, and tells of his personal ups-and-downs back on Earth, including his life as an American hero and his struggles with depression and alcoholism. Today, he is living a life of health and renewed enthusiasm, and he is committed to the future of space exploration. The book will be in stores on June 23. He hopes one day it will be made into a movie.
Aldrin, who says the best part of the moon voyage was returning home safely, earned a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics in 1963 from MIT, where his innovations in Manned Space Rendezvous techniques are now standard procedure.
His mother’s maiden name was Moon and his father, who earned three degrees from MIT, was an aviator. Raised in Montclair, N.J., Aldrin’s childhood hero was the Lone Ranger. “I worshipped the Lone Ranger,” he once wrote. To be like him, once he rode his bike alone a half-day to the George Washington Bridge.
Over the years, he has done much work with Mars exploration. On this day, the conversation is orbiting around whether there is life on Mars.
WILL BE LIFE
“There will be,” Aldrin says.
“When we get there. And it’ll never be the same,” he says, adding that he expects that we would launch people to the surface of Mars in 2030 and they would arrive in 2031. “Now that’s far more exciting, I think, than going back to where we’ve been before,” he says of the moon, adding, “But that’s not to say we won’t go back.”
Aldrin, who recently founded a rocket design company and a nonprofit organization committed to making space travel available to all people, is a tireless advocate of space tourism. “We’re not escaping the Earth. We’re not relieving the overpopulation of the Earth by going somewhere else. We’re taking the first gentle step toward ensuring the survival of the human race. Suppose a big asteroid wipes us out. Sixty-five million years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out. But they didn’t have a space program. We’re a little smarter now.”
Aldrin believes that we are not alone in the universe. He first began thinking about this when he returned from the moon, he says. He thought so much about it that in 1996, he wrote Encounter with Tiber, a science-fiction story that details how 9,000 years ago aliens from Alpha Centauri, the closest star, visit Earth. He is proud of the book and hopes one day it, too, will be made into a movie. Aldrin has also written two children’s books, Reaching for the Moon, a New York Times bestseller, and his latest, Look to the Stars.
“I’m uncomfortable at cocktail parties, because they’re talking small talk, and that’s not of interest to me,” says Aldrin, who loves to scuba dive because “it’s a whole different world. I don’t have to worry about all the things that people up above the surface are worried about. I got my own world down there, and I better pay attention.”
What Aldrin is interested in, he says, is the future. In fact, he thinks about it a lot. “I’m concerned about the great advantages that we have in this country, and where we will be in 2050, 2100.” He says he hopes the message of his life will be “think long time, not short time.”
Aldrin, who has earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lives on the fringes of Beverly Hills with his wife, Lois. (“I have a very productive partnership with her that makes one and one much more than two.”) They have a blended family of six children and one grandchild.
“Being famous is okay most of the time, unless somebody says, ‘There he goes,’ or ‘You-know-who is in town,’ and then it gets challenging. Barbra Streisand and Dick Van Dyke can’t walk through an airport. I can. Sometimes I wear a jacket with an Apollo or NASA patch, and after a while, the flight attendant knows who I am and maybe the guy sitting next to me. I don’t mind — unless they ask for an autograph — because that starts a wildfire.”
Alumnus Buzz Aldrin returns to the Institute in June for Giant Leaps, an MIT celebration to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Program and to honor those who made it a success. The extensive event features leaders from engineering, sciences, arts, and humanities and focuses on how to apply the lessons of the moon project to the challenges of the future. The event includes many of the Apollo greats. A highlight of the celebration is the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall performing Gustav Holst’s The Planets, with Aldrin as the narrator.