by Steven Diogo
Buzz Aldrin the Icon and Buzz Aldrin the Man are two very different creatures.
The icon laughs at death, rides wild rockets like bucking broncos and contem-
plates the mysteries of life in the wondrous cosmos outside his Apollo window.
The man focuses on mission, procedure and detail. He is a military man and
engineer. He’s not terribly interested in describing what it felt like to walk on
the moon or the deeper meaning of his struggles with alcoholism and depres-
sion. What interests him is about using every tool in his kit to complete the
mission in front of him.
So, while one approaches a conversation with Buzz Aldrin expecting insights
into the nature of the universe, one leaves understanding that icons don’t push
the boundaries of human experience. Engineers do.
For the past 40 years, Aldrin’s mission has been the reinvigoration of America’s
space program, exciting the country’s appetite for exploration and willingness
to take risks. It is the establishment of manned missions and settlements to the
moon and Mars.
As for his recovery from alcoholism, Aldrin identified the problem, outlined a
plan of action and followed through. It became one of his greatest accomplishments.
A Legend Was Born
On July 20, 1969, 19 minutes after Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11
capsule, astronaut Buzz Aldrin became the second man to set his feet on the sur-
face of the moon. At 39 years old, with an estimated 600 million people watch-
ing on grainy televisions around the world, the Aldrin of imagination was born.
The photo of the astronaut with the moonscape reflected in the shield of his
helmet would become the world’s collective image of the man and an icon that
would serve as everything from Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign
to MTV’s “Moon Man.”
Aldrin’s trajectory to that moment included graduating third in his class with
a BS in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point,
flying F-86 Sabre jets in 66 combat missions in Korea, shooting down two MIG-
15s, then earning a doctorate of science in astronautics from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.
His thesis on orbital rendezvous became the blueprint for docking spacecrafts in orbit, leading to the success of the Gemini and Apollo missions. His breakthroughs are still used. He performed
the first successful spacewalk during the Gemini 12 mission in 1966, then embarked on the training that would culminate in the Apollo 11 mission.
Down to Earth
Everything to that point was textbook, the result of tireless training and detailed plan-
ning. Everything afterward was uncharted territory. Getting to the moon, it turns out,
is nothing compared to re-adapting to life as an earthling.
Back on earth, Aldrin struggled with his sense of purpose. What does a man do for an
encore after walking on the moon? “There’s a reason my first autobiography
was called Return to Earth, and not Journey to the Moon,” Aldrin says.
We picture our heroes in constant motion, yet the reality of most exciting careers is long periods of drudgery punctuated by moments of pure adrenaline. For Aldrin, even the experience of
landing on the moon was mostly drudgery.
“Landing on the moon is not quite the same thing as arriving at Grandmother’s for Thanksgiving,” Aldrin explains in his book, Magnificent Desolation. “You don’t hop out of the lunar module the moment the engine stops and yell, ‘We’re here!’” Once the Eagle had landed, the astronauts had to spend hours in the capsule, checking systems and ensuring they could blast off
immediately if anything went wrong. “The focus was on the science,” Aldrin
says. “We had not really planned for the gee-whiz stuff that, in retrospect, proved to be
Following Aldrin’s return from the moon, the tedium was compounded by insecurity,
disappointment and depression. The future, for the first time in Aldrin’s career, was a
blank slate. The man who had gone where no man had gone before was ill-prepared for this
great unknown. He had plenty of drive and ideas for the future of space travel, but the
nation he had served for so long had other ideas. NASA wanted him mostly as a PR
machine. The Air Force wanted him to test aircrafts. No one was interested in his ideas for the space program’s next steps.
“It was disappointing, discouraging,” Aldrin says of the time. Compounding the discouragement was the depression that had plagued Aldrin throughout his life. Now, with little else to occupy
him, the astronaut found that drinking was the only thing that kept the “valleys” from stretching out indefinitely. “The depression, fueled by alcoholism that I refused to admit, took its normal, slow progression.” He met with psychologists and psychiatrists, all the while avoiding
any mention about his drinking, even though he kept a bottle of scotch in his duffel bag and tended to hide the bottle when others came to visit.
“When I felt the paralyzing gloom coming on, I’d begin to drink heavily,”
he explains in Magnificent Desolation. He was a hero. He could handle his booze.
He tried meetings, but like most who start out looking for differences, he didn’t see any other astronauts in the room. “It takes genuine humility to turn your life over to a higher
power,” Aldrin says today. “That may be why it is so difficult for some people to stop their destructive behavior. It was for me.”
The Mission of His Life
In October 1978 after several false starts, Aldrin put down the bottle for good, setting forth on a discovery and a renewed sense of mission.
Like a rocket, Aldrin’s life since 1978 has burst in stages, each providing the propulsion needed to reach a point where, today, Aldrin describes his mission as “fantasizing the reality of what
could be, to see what’s going on and make it better.”
Stage one was setting out on the journey to recovery. Stage two fired in 1985 when he met Lois Driggs Cannon. Now Lois Aldrin, Buzz’s partner and muse describes her mission as loving
and supporting her husband in all of his endeavors, not just as his cheerleader but also as his business partner. “Buzz loves serving his country, and I love putting together the situations for Buzz to do it,” Lois says.
Together, these stages have lifted Aldrin back into a trajectory that carries him through intellectual and physical challenges that would humble men half his 81 years. In the two weeks surrounding this interview, Aldrin was in Japan, San Francisco and Washington D.C., all in the name of furthering the research, development, funding and logistics necessary to reinvigorate the U.S. space program. Only a medical procedure to alleviate pain in his back caused him to stay put long enough to grant this interview.
“I marvel at the extent of our human capabilities,” Aldrin says. He is talking about the technology that he believes will allow us to colonize the moon, Mars and beyond. But it is clear from
speaking with the couple that those capabilities include sobriety, love and service as well.
“Here’s the secret.” Lois says. “Give 100 percent, and expect nothing in return. As a result, you will get everything in return.”
Today, at 81, the icon and the man are more in synch. Aldrin continues to push to see humanity resume reaching for the stars. He remains focused on his mission, and no logistical details escape
him. At the same time, he seems to be making friends with the poet and philosopher sharing space with the engineer and adventurer. With time and reflection and Lois, he views the arc of his life with gratitude.
“Recovery and the resumption of productive activity have taken me to a point that I believe exceeds what I could have done had I not gone through all of that,” he says. “I’m on the upper part of recovery, better than I was before, but still precarious. I still need to work.”
Lois, who has only known the sober Buzz, echoes the belief: “If you have the fall down and the rise up, then you probably have a better life than someone who has never fallen.”
And finally, after more than 40 years of struggling with answering the question “What did it feel like?”, he’s finding new ways to put his accomplishments in perspective and verbalize their deeper meaning. “Over 40 years, I have come to believe that the real value of Apollo 11 was not the experiments we set up or the rocks we brought back,” he explains in Magnificent Desolation. “It was in the shared experience in which people throughout the world who witnessed our landing participated.”
Today, Aldrin’s mission is to capture the power of that communal striving and bring people together in awe of their own capabilities, what Lois calls “embellishing the human desire for exploration.”
“Buzz wants the world to be interested in space exploration because, without that, we’re just going to become more and more enclosed in ourselves,” she says. “He hopes that we’ll settle the
universe, and by that we’ll rise higher as a human race.”
Reprinted from RENEW Magazine