Buzz Aldrin: Down to Earth

Buzz Aldrin accomplished and even bigger feat than walking on the moon - overcoming alcoholism and depression.

By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published on May 1, 2001 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.