Buzz Aldrin: Down to Earth

After the nation's most famous astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, flew to the moon in 1969, he returned to Earth an American icon. But his training as a moonwalker hardly prepared him for fame. Scrutiny on a global scale led to depression, alcoholism and divorce. Over time, he summoned the courage to seek help and work through his difficulties.

Many factors led to his recovery, among them therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous and his marriage to Lois Driggs Cannon. Lois, his third wife, has helped him build a new life. They share a comfortable home in Southern California and drive cars with license plates reading MARS GUY and MOON GAL. Today, he even jokes about his alter ego, Buzz Lightyear.

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Buzz is filled with ideas and plans. Some, in fact, are a little far out. If he had his way, large numbers of tourists would soon be floating around in zero-gravity. Aldrin founded ShareSpace, a nonprofit company that will help fund and promote mass-market space travel. To drive his vision home, his fictional book, The Return, maps out a near future that touts thriving space-tourism industry. Opening space to regular folks, he believes, will accelerate our progress back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Buzz Aldrin grew up in a family of aviators, with a father who kept company with the likes of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. That upbringing set the tone for what was to come. He graduated from West Point third in his class, flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He is also the first astronaut to hold a Ph.D.--a doctorate in astronautics from MIT. In graduate school, he wrote a dissertation on spacecraft rendezvous and docking. Not bad training for his famed walk on the moon with fellow astronaut Nell Armstrong.

Robert Epstein, Ph.D., sat down with Aldrin and discussed his achievements, his successful battle with depression and alcoholism, and his plans for the future.

RE: In 1969, on the 20th of July, you and Neil Armstrong walked on another heavenly body--a significant landmark in human history. Can you recall your feelings about being on the moon?

BA: I was exhilarated, but also guarded. We were on show. There was nobody around for hundreds of thousands of miles. But there was a camera and a radio and many millions of people watching. We were aware of that, and that causes you to focus your attention and make sure you aren't making mistakes. You're on stage, but it's a very unusual stage.

RE: Was your heart pounding?

BA: There was a lot of preparation--so if it was pounding at one time, it subsided. We've all been in situations where there's some anxiety or stage fright. It's apprehension, it's concern, it's wanting to look good.

RE: You'd been in combat, you'd shot down two MIGs, you'd already been out in space in Gemini--was this worse or the same or easier?

BA: It was the high point of performance, of responsibility, of demand. When we touched down, I looked at Neil, and he looked at me. I patted him on the shoulder and he said "Houston, Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed." And, man, that lifted a lot of apprehension and pressure from people all over the world.

While up there we couldn't talk about any hitches--such as the buildup of pressure in one of the descent tanks--over the air to mission control and the public. We had to be alert.

And when we were getting ready to leave the moon, Houston said, "Apollo 11, you're cleared for liftoff." And I said, "Roger, we're number one on the runway." Although it's a phrase used over and over, there was no one else up there, and there wasn't a runway up there either. Still, we had no temptation to be flip. We couldn't be telling jokes. When we returned from the moon, we saw the reaction of the people. And I said to Neil, "We missed the whole thing." We didn't share the moment of exhilaration here on Earth. We were sort of out of town doing something else.

RE: Were you prepared for life back on Earth?

BA: After we got back, I wasn't prepared to be in the public eye. I traveled around the world and met many people. At one point, we visited 23 countries in 45 days. I also thought that going to the moon couldn't be topped. So I left NASA and returned to the Air Force. But I don't think the Air Force knew what to do with someone who went to the moon.

I was an outsider. I was the egghead from academia who got in because the rules had changed. While I looked for validation from my fellow contemporaries, I instead found jealousy and envy. I did not find team spirit. This led to dissatisfaction, an unease.

What I felt was depression. There were also family situations developing at that time. My life was moving in one direction, and my family was going in the other. That eventually led to a divorce and the split up of the family.

But there was another trait that had been hidden. Everyone was drinking, and I was too. This led to periods of self-evaluation and concern. What am I doing? What is my role in life now? I realized that I was experiencing a melancholy of things done. I really had no future plans after returning from the moon. So I had to reexamine my life.

I also had a genetic tendency toward alcoholism. [Both of his parents suffered from the disease.] That eventually reached its peak in 1976 and 1977. Recovery was not easy. Perhaps the most challenging turnaround was accepting the need for assistance and help. Looking back at it now--with over 22 years of sobriety--this was probably one of my greatest challenges. But it has also been one of the most satisfying because it has given me a sense of comfort and ease with where I am now.

RE: You went to the moon, fought depression, even served as the chairman of the National Mental Health Association. Now you have been setting your sights on new tasks, such as getting us back to the moon and even beyond to Mars. What's your vision?

BA: Mars is there, waiting to be reached. But we need an evolutionary set of objectives of where we're going. Our overall objective should be one that makes use of space transportation. Yet in order to do that, we have to reduce the cost of getting into space, increase public involvement and build the next generation space shuttle that can carry an adequate number of people. It will take some significant engineering feats as well as a better understanding of physics.

Tourism is a $4 trillion industry, but it's limited to the surface of Earth. With funds from Congress, ShareSpace is gradually enlightening the public. It is currently doing a study on space transportation. I think humans will reach Mars, and I would like to see it happen in my lifetime.

RE: What do you say to the people who think that our efforts need to be focused here on Earth?

BA: Well, we can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way; not trying to solve all things at once, but doing it at a gradual pace. All sorts of things will come as a result of investing in new pioneering efforts. Yes, it seems absurd to go that far away, but bringing back resources could make a big change in the way we operate here on Earth.

RE: Are we alone in the universe?

BA: Well, that's hard to say. There's absolutely no evidence. But [space] is so enormous, so vast, there may be rudimentary forms of life developing in many places--thousands, tens of thousands, millions of places.

RE: What's your bottomline message to Americans growing up today?

BA: There's a need for accepting responsibility--for a person's life and making choices that are not just ones for immediate short-term comfort. You need to make an investment, and the investment is in health and education. These things don't give you an immediate payoff. But as you proceed through life with arms outstretched, gathering opportunities and picking the ones that are appropriate, good fortune will come our way.

RE: If you could accomplish anything during the remaining years of your life, what would that be?

BA: I'd like to communicate the concepts I have. I'd like to gather people who can implement my vision and work on the future of the space program. That is--transportation in space and how to get there in a progressive way. I want to exhibit the human abilities of creativity and communication for the betterment of all.

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