Moon Talk

Twenty-five years ago this week a message came crackling into the nation’s living rooms from 240,000 miles away: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Brief but redolent with romance, the message was from an intense, blue-eyed young man named Neil Armstrong. Along with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., his Apollo 11 mission partner, Armstrong had just made history with the first moon landing. The pair seemed to open the door to the universe. And during the next three years, 10 more men went through it. The country, riven by the Vietnam War, temporarily came together in pride and wonder at these exploits. But no one was more affected than the astronauts themselves. “Looking back at the Earth for the first time,” says Alan Shepard, “I actually, literally, cried.” The question for 11 of these men—James Irwin died in 1991 of a heart attack—is: What do you do for an encore after you’ve walked on the moon? The lives of these astronauts, who rarely meet as a group, provide some surprising answers.

From the Sea of Tranquility to a sea of troubles


Age: 64

Apollo 11, July 16-24, 1969.

Buzz Aldrin’s life continues to rocket along at warp speed—though it’s all suborbital these days. Over a recent three-month period, he squeezed in trips to Sweden, Russia, Washington, New York, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Idaho, Colorado, and the Cayman Islands—most of them involving a lecture or conference about the space program. “Buzz has no business,” says Lois, 64, his travel coordinator and wife of seven years. “The business is Buzz.”

And for Aldrin, who keeps houses in Los Angeles, Laguna Beach and Sun Valley, the moon is still his abiding passion. Small wonder, given his rocky return to Earth. Aldrin, reportedly, had hoped to be the first man to set foot on the moon and was deeply disappointed when Neil Armstrong, the commander of the flight, enjoyed that honor. “Buzz’s altitude,” said Michael Collins, who piloted the command module, “took a noticeable turn in the direction of gloom and introspection shortly thereafter.”

A fighter jock with a doctorate in astronautics, Aldrin wanted to follow up his 7½ years with NASA as commandant of the Air Force Academy. Instead he was given a public relations job with the space agency, then assigned to head a test-flight, school, and his life went into a tailspin. In 1971 he was treated for depression; then in the mid-’70s he faced up to alcoholism. “I was a perfectionist and over-achiever,” he says. The battle “was probably the most difficult thing I ever had to do, but it also was probably the most rewarding.”

Sober for 16 years, Aldrin regrets that the U.S. no longer embraces space flight—but leaves no question where he stands: The license plates on the his-and-hers Mercedes and Porsche, both red, read MARS GUY and MOONGAL.

A very private life


Age: 63

Apollo 11, July 16-24, 1969.

The first man on the moon was once asked how he felt knowing that his footprints might remain undisturbed for centuries on the lunar surface. “I hope somebody goes up there some day,” he said, “and cleans them up.”

A private person, Neil Armstrong is the moon program’s most reluctant hero. He grants no interviews and rarely attends public functions ever since NASA dragged him and Aldrin around the world in 1969 on a dog-and-pony show, visiting as many as five capitals a day.

In 1971, Armstrong joined the faculty at the University of Cincinnati, teaching aerospace engineering for nine years before getting into the oil-equipment business. Armstrong, who has two grown sons, lives with his wife, Jan, on a farm in Lebanon, Ohio, 100 miles south of Wapakoneta, his boyhood home.

And he continues to carry noncommunication to an extreme. Asked to confirm the name of Armstrong’s Lebanon company, a woman answering the phone says, “I’m not going to give any information.”

The last man on the moon


Age: 60

Apollo 17, Dec. 7-19, 1972.

On a wall of the Cernan Corp.’s large corner office are two photographs, one of Neil Armstrong, one of Eugene Cernan, both taken on the moon. “Neil was the first man to walk on the moon, and I was the last. So we sent each other pictures and signed them for each other,” Cernan explains.

After retiring from the Navy in 1976, Cernan went into the airline business, consulted for energy companies, coanchored ABC’s coverage of the shuttle flights and helped develop space theme parks. “I was searching for something to build upon going to the moon,” he says. “Maybe I still am.”

Not that he’s obsessed. Trim, energetic and living in Houston with his second wife, Jan, 52, Cernan has found a distracting new interest: His first grandchild, Ashley Nicole, age 2, born to his only child, Tracy. “Is the birth of my granddaughter as important as my having gone to the moon?” he muses. “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Inspired by the moonlight


Age: 62

Apollo 12, Nov. 14-24, 1969.

Alan Bean has one great regret about his moon walk. “I wish I’d taken along a pad of paper and some watercolors,” he says. “I could have been the first artist [to paint] on the moon.”

Having missed that chance, Bean has been painting moonscapes almost ever since. Following his retirement from the Navy in 1975 after 21 years, Bean, who first studied painting at Virginia’s St. Mary College in 1962, has produced close to 100 works depicting astronauts on the rugged, arid terrain around the Ocean of Storms, where he and Pete Conrad landed.

The father of two grown children, Bean and his second wife, Leslie, 46, director for patient advocacy at M.D. Anderson Hospital, live in a town house in an upscale Houston neighborhood with three Lhasa apsos. His paintings, which sell for upwards of $15,000, share wall space with mementos of Bean’s moon voyage: space gloves, moon tools and the pièce de résistance, a packet of freeze-dried spaghetti.

A shaky landing


Age: 62

Apollo 15, July 26-Aug. 7, 1971.

“Nothing I’ve done since has equalled going to the moon,” says David Scott. “But when it’s over, it’s over.”

For Scott, it was over sooner than he expected. Within months of their 12-day flight, he and fellow astronauts James Irwin and Alfred Worden resigned from active astronaut duty amid allegations that they had tried to profit improperly by taking specially stamped and canceled envelopes with them in an arrangement with a German stamp dealer. (In 1983, NASA conceded that they had done no wrong.)

Scott continued with NASA until 1977 before quitting to start a consulting firm. In 1992 he was convicted of fraud in Arizona and ordered to pay back $250,000 plus expenses to investors in a company he founded to develop an aircraft-accident-prevention system. He is appealing the conviction.

An aerospace consultant, Scott, who lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., with Lurton, his wife of 35 years (they have two adult children), makes no claims to eloquence. “It was pretty spectacular scenery,” he says of the moonscape he visited, “but to properly convey that scene, you need to send a poet or an artist.”

At one with the universe


Age: 63

Apollo 14, Jan. 31-Feb. 9, 1971.

As he sits in his comfortable Boca Raton, Fla., living room, his bookshelves loaded with serious reading, a couple of candles burning to soften the mood, it can seem as if Edgar Mitchell never quite made it back to Earth. “The fundamental questions,” he says, “are: What is the mind? What is self? What is the nature of consciousness?”

These questions took on a special urgency for Mitchell in the darkness between Earth and the moon. “Gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and planet from which I had come,” he once said, “I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.” In 1972, Mitchell resigned from the astronaut corps after six years and a year later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to investigate relationships between science and spirituality.

Married to his third wife, Sheilah Ann Led-better—-a Playboy bunny turned yoga instructor, who took him to court in a paternity suit five years before they wed—Mitchell, who also has two grown children, makes his living as a management and technology consultant. He also gives an annual talk about his days as an astronaut at son Adam’s elementary school. “I don’t subscribe lo the notion that everything was downhill from the space flight,” he says. “I still have a lot to do.”

The space-age senator


Age: 59

Apollo 17, Dec. 7-19, 1972.

“The whole 10 years was a geological experience,” says Harvard Ph.D. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who supervised the astronauts’ collection of rocks on the moon and then finally became the first scientist-astronaut in space. Retiring from NASA in 1975, he promptly moved into a different orbit: politics. A Republican, he ran for the Senate in his home state of New Mexico, defeating the Democratic incumbent, Joseph Montoya. “That was a kick,” says Schmitt, who failed to get reelected in 1982.

Nowadays, Schmitt, who is childless, lives with his wife, Teresa, a freelance writer, in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, where he runs with his two retrievers and brainstorms space projects for foundations and businesses. His work with the University of Wisconsin, for example, centers around mining lunar soil for helium-3—a potentially important fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. “I still average a couple talks a week about the moon—often to kids,” says Schmitt. “There’s really only one way you can communicate with the future—through children.”

Straight down the fairway


Age: 70

Apollo 14, Jan. 31-Feb. 9, 1971.

“Particularly when the moon’s full and the skies are clear,” says Alan Shepard Jr., “I look at it and reflect on where I was.” Shepard, America’s first man in space on May 5, 1961, went all the way lo the moon in 1971.

Back on Earth, Shepard, who was building his fortune as the co-owner of two Houston banks while in the astronaut program, retired as a rear admiral in 1974. Subsequent investments in Kmarts, Marriott hotels and a Coors distributorship that he operated turned him into a multimillionaire. A recent project is the just-published Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon, written with fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, who died last year. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire in the sense of sitting down to play gin rummy with the boys,” says the father of two grown daughters.

Gin rummy, no, but the man who attached a six-iron head to his sample-collecting rod to shoot a little lunar golf, has moved with Louise, his wife of 49 years, to Pebble Beach, Calif., near one of the world’s prettiest courses.

But the trip that’s most on his mind is a flight someday lo Mars. “People will gel excited about it just the way they did about going to the moon,” he says. “Hell, I’d go in a minute.”

A wing and a prayer


Age: 58

Apollo 16, April 16-27, 1972.

The lodge-style house by the lake where Charles Moss Duke Jr. lives with Dotty, his wife of 31 years and mother of his two sons, in New Braunfels, Texas, shows little evidence that he ever walked on the moon. There is a three-fool model of the rocket that carried him into space and a piece of moon rock in a glass display case. Mementos from his travels around the world as a lay minister attest to the change in Duke’s priorities.

Duke says his Christianity, which he describes as “a tremendous adventure for my wife and me over the last 16 years,” emerged from an emptiness he fell after going to the moon and a near-divorce in the mid-’70s. “No matter how much power or fame or money one has,” he says, “it can never satisfy without a deep personal relationship with God.”

Yet even though his religion gives him, he says, “peace, a purpose,” he is thrilled by what he accomplished more than 20 years ago. “When I was a kid,” he says, “if I’d told my Momma I was gonna walk on the moon, they’d have dropped a net on me. I was the 10th man on the moon, but I could have been the 10,000th and it would have been as exciting for me.”

A revelation on the moon


Died August 1991 at 61 Apollo 15, July26-Aug. 7, 1971.

After exploring the rugged lunar highlands in 1971, James B. Irwin was reminded of his favorite passage from Psalms. “I’ll look unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” said Irwin, speaking by radio to Mission Control. Then he quickly added, “But, of course, we get quite a bit from Houston, too.”

An Air Force lieutenant colonel, Irwin had an epiphany on the moon. “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before,” he said. A year after his mission, Irwin—who married twice and had five children—resigned to found the evangelical High Flight Foundation.

He was probing the literalness of the Bible right up until a fatal heart attack in 1991. He led several expeditions to Turkey’s Mount Ararat in search of evidence of Noah’s Ark. In 1982 he reached the 16,942-foot summit but fell and had to be earned down on horseback. “It’s easier to walk on the moon,” said Irwin, who never lost his sense of humor.

Planning the next mission


Age: 64

Apollo 12, Nov. 14-24, 1969.

Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. is excited about the Delta Clipper, which is under development at the White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, N.Mex. Conrad, a vice president of the McDonnell Douglas Corp., has been overseeing testing of the single-stage vehicle designed to carry passengers and payloads into space with the ease of a jet airplane. “I want to fly it myself,” he says.

Conrad still has the steely blue eyes, gap-toothed grin and test pilot’s swagger that earned him his place in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. His home base is in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he lives with his second wife, Nancy, 51, an editor he met on a blind dale in 1988. Between them, the couple have five grown sons. (A sixth, Conrad’s youngest, died of cancer in 1990 at age 29.)

Conrad isn’t sentimental about his lunar mission (though he’s quick to point out that he was the first to bring country music to the moon—cassettes of Charley Pride and Willie Nelson.) ” ‘There’s nothing worse than the old football hero talking about his last game,” he grouses. “I enjoyed everything, but I don’t look back.”

Still in harness


Age: 63

Apollo 16, April 16-27, 1972.

John Young, 63, is America’s oldest active astronaut—the only moonwalker still with NASA. He stays prepared, training regularly in simulators and supersonic training jets—though it’s unlikely he’ll launch again.

During the Apollo 10 mission, he angered NASA brass by pulling out an unauthorized corned-beef sandwich—NASA feared crumbs would mess up the delicate instruments. They didn’t. Later, on the moon, Young and Charles Duke floored their battery-operated car, provoking a reprimand for speeding. More seriously, in the wake of the 1986 Challenger explosion, Young issued a string of very blunt memos, embarrassing NASA by charging that it had sacrificed flight safety to meet a busy launch schedule. Young, who lives with his second wife, Suzy, in a Houston suburb—he has two grown children—has mellowed, but only slightly. These days, says Navy captain Robert Gibson, chief of the astronaut office: “John’s memos are a lot more thoughtful.”



Updated by Susan Reed
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