He is a self-proclaimed futurist, a doctor of science who says he knows the best way to reach Mars, a prized peacock on the Southern California social circuit who attends two or three fancy charity events a week, the author of two books, Return to Earth and the newly published Men from Earth. But whatever he does, wherever he goes, his past surrounds him like a great, almost visible space capsule. Twenty years ago this July, he was on the Apollo 11 lunar module for the first, nearly magical lunar landing mission. Buzz Aldrin is the second man ever to walk on the moon.
It is a strange anniversary: Twenty years is a long time for a man but only the barest start of a wink in the eons it took mankind to touch the moon. That feat still colors the Aldrin way of life—mostly because he longs to make greater use of the experience than seems possible and because, as he argues in his new book about the race to the moon, he believes America should step up manned exploration of the solar system. Straight-backed and stern of visage like the old flyer he is, Aldrin is an otherworldly pragmatist, and he always has been. Even when he looked at the freshly planted American flag on the lunar surface back on that earthshaking July 20, his heart was with those who dreamed of manned flights beyond the moon.
Now he is somewhat frustrated, a visionary stymied by a bureaucrat’s maze. He long ago quit NASA, whose thinking he finds too narrow. He wants to use the moon as a base for interplanetary explorations; he envisions a continuing stream of energy-efficient spacecraft (“cyclers”) carrying smaller space taxis which would be piloted to spaceports; he believes such “depots” should be in the pyramid shape of tetrahedrons and octahedrons; and eventually he wants to see a landing on Mars. To NASA, in an era of tight budgets, Aldrin’s ideas hardly fit into its polished campaigns to squeeze money from Washington. So it is no surprise that fellow astronauts tagged Aldrin Dr. Rendezvous (his specialty on the ’60s moon missions)—or that some of the more buttoned-up space technocrats have escalated the name-calling by titling him the Nutty Professor. But another conflict arises here. NASA is going slowly, while Aldrin wants to blast off. When it’s been 20 years since a man walked on the moon, he tends to get restless. “The missing ingredient in the space program today is the spaceport,” he argues. “The tetrahedrons and octahedrons lend themselves to this concept because, unlike squares, they don’t require bracing. The tetrahedrons also present more possibilities for building out or hooking up with spacecraft.”
“All Buzz Aldrin is trying to do is make a difference,” says his wife, Lois. “As if he hadn’t already.”
An elusive figure who seems to fall somewhere between your basic celebrity on a book tour and the Ghost of Moonwalks Past, Aldrin is still a military man with a mission. But he has always been a bit out of the mainstream of the program to which he has given most of his life. In 1959, a Korean War fighter pilot and Air Force major with eight years of service, he concluded he would aim for the stars—those in space, not those on shoulders. So he took a canny risk: Lacking any test-pilot experience, he went to MIT for his doctorate in astronautics, specializing in the delicate science of spacecraft rendezvous. He dedicated his 1963 thesis on the subject: “To the men in the astronaut program. Oh, that I were one of them.” He soon was among them, if not exactly one of them, and he mastered the technical demands of the job. Nonetheless, he seemed personally a bit off balance—not quite the Right Stuff—to NASA traditionalists.
In recent years Aldrin has lived well from speaking engagements and his consulting work for aerospace companies, universities and even NASA’s Office of Exploration. His vision is still fixed on space. Enter his home and you will encounter a bust of the astronaut in the entry hall. Over the fireplace is an abstract moonscape. In another hall there is a painting of a naked woman in a spacefield of Aldrin’s beloved tetrahedrons. But behind the space art and memorabilia remains the fact that this is the second guy who got to walk on the moon, and people won’t let him forget it.
“I’m a military man,” Aldrin tartly told an Australian interviewer who recently probed him for signs of resentment. “I went to West Point, I understood the chain of command. Did I expect to be first? No.”
Of course, he was right: Mission commander Neil Armstrong went first. Aldrin has always derided the issue (he claimed credit for being the first to pee in his pants on the moon), and he says it never affected him. “Controversy is something people love,” he says resignedly. But his father, Edwin, an Army colonel and flier, was far less sanguine. Aldrin says his dad was “angered to learn that I would not be the first man to set foot on the moon”—and furious when a commemorative stamp was issued in Armstrong’s sole honor.
What did trouble Aldrin all along was the fame he knew awaited him. He once even contemplated asking to be assigned to the second mission instead of the first. “I had seen enough of hometown parades after Gemini 12 [the 1966 earth-orbiting mission],” he says. “There was an anxiety I didn’t like. I knew what was going to happen afterwards was not going to be too pleasing.”
He was right again. Troubled by depression after his lunar excursion, he spent a year doing public relations work for NASA—he was too famous for a middling job, too inexperienced for one at the top. Then he returned to active duty in the Air Force and was assigned as commandant of the service’s test-pilot school. Again following in famous footsteps, he took the job five years behind Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. By all accounts, the appointment was far from a success. In October 1971, just over two years after his historic flight, he was hospitalized for depression. In therapy he confronted a family history of depression as well as his father’s lofty expectations. In 1978 he also faced up to another problem: alcoholism. He says he hasn’t had a drink since.
That period of grief now seems far behind the hero who regularly attends formal parties and lives with his third wife (they wed in 1988) in a small but fashionable home in Laguna Beach. Lois Driggs Cannon Aldrin, who was previously married for 25 years, is a tiny woman wreathed in silvery hair. She comes from a prominent family in Arizona, and her carefully kept press clippings attest that she is a regular on the Orange County social circuit. She is also a public relations dynamo, determined to see that her man and his literally far-out ideas get respect.
“I’m the one that’s encouraging Buzz to do the interviews,” Lois admits, “only because who will know these things if he doesn’t? It’s sort of like a politician—you have to gain a constituency. When I met Buzz, I felt like a young lady falling in love for the first time. I had never been involved in space. Then to meet this man, it was a whole new realm. Here he is, almost 60, just going forth, thinking of new ideas. This is so much more fun than just marrying a very wealthy man and going on cruises for the rest of my life. Not that cruises would be bad. But I love working with Buzz and meeting this different world of aerospace people. They talk of things way out into the future. And I see all this, with this wonderful, cute, fun guy.” In fact Aldrin seems to be having more fun than ever. His children, Mike, 33 (a flight attendant), Andy, 31 (a doctoral candidate at UCLA), and Jan, 31 (a retailer), are frequent visitors.
Aldrin is now the only highly visible alumnus of Apollo 11. The man who beat him to the moon is a private man who gives no interviews. “I give press conferences,” says Armstrong, now head of an aviation-software firm. The third member of the team, Mike Collins, former director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, is writing a book about creating an expedition to Mars (the Red Planet wins out over Venus because “Venus is just too hot—like 800 degrees. It would ruin your whole day to go to Venus”). Collins, too, avoids the spotlight. “I’m mostly 99.7 percent anonymous,” he says.
And that leaves only Buzz Aldrin out there, sometimes taking the heat. In 1988 he joked about making an engagement ring from a chip off a moon rock. Government officials took umbrage, and the mythical ring turned into a two-carat diamond set in a diamond-studded eternity ring, which now rests on Lois’s finger. When people ask about the ring, Lois Aldrin has a ready response. “I tell them the moon is really made of diamonds,” the astronaut’s wife says. “And we like to look up at the stars.”
—Pete Axthelm, Beth Austin in Laguna Beach