In lieu of a rescue plan, the Apollo 11 mission had a speech. If Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became stranded, President Richard Nixon would call their wives, summon a clergyman to commend their souls and commit their bodies to the deep, and address the watching world: “In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times we do much the same but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
“Others will follow, and surely find their way home. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.” Mission Control would then switch off the signal, leaving the astronauts to spend their final minutes alone in contemplation of the infinite.
Aldrin’s father, a military man, had a hard time accepting this. He also struggled to understand why Armstrong, the commander, went first, when the clear precedent from previous Gemini and Apollo missions was for the junior officer to leave the capsule. Later, when the Post Office produced a commemorative stamp that effaced Buzz entirely, he picketed the White House, with a sign: “My Son Was First, Too.”
Buzz understood, though; had understood since his days flying an F-86 Sabre in the Korean War. On the moon, as in “MiG Alley,” north of the Yalu river, if you got into trouble, you were on your own. “I really don’t like the phrase ‘failure is not an option,’” he says. “If you start out with that, don’t fly.”
In his Destination Mars t-shirt, a bracelet of red, white and blue skulls on one wrist and a translucent bangle and oversized watch on the other, Aldrin resembles Popeye with a hint of Jack Sparrow. The braces are to keep his trousers up and the belt holds his gut in. “What I do has to have an objective,” he explains. He is eighty-five but the force is still with him.
After being fished out of the Pacific Ocean by the USS Hornet, the astronauts were put in quarantine, but soon discovered that physical isolation wasn’t the half of it. They were alone in front of the cameras, alone in the ticker-tape parades, alone on stage with Sinatra singing Fly Me To The Moon. Mostly, Buzz was alone at home with a bottle of whisky and the depression in his genes.
NASA should have sent up a poet or an artist, he reckons, to describe the view for all mankind. Because for forty-six years now, the question is always the same: “What did it feel like on the moon?” He doesn’t have an answer. “Magnificent desolation,” he called it, while he was there.
Armstrong served his time as an ambassador for the space programme and then retreated. He took Hallmark Cards to court for using “one small step” without permission, sued his barber for selling his hair and turned down all interview requests, showing up at the White House every five years with Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins to mark the anniversary.
Aldrin flamed out of a job with the Air Force and retired at forty-two. His first advert was for the Dynamark Lawn Tractor – “Buzz Aldrin drives it around – it’s out of this world” – and he’s made himself available ever since, as a living reminder of the time when the United States government chose to do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” JFK declared that America would put a man on the moon. Buzz says Barack Obama should do the same for Mars.
“A lot of people, they think going to Mars is too difficult,” Aldrin says. “So why do we go? We go for inspiration. We go because it’s human nature to investigate the unknown. Magellan, Columbus, Shackleton – these are people.”
He’s in New York to promote his latest book, Welcome To Mars, a space manifesto for pre-teens. As always, he’s travelling with his assistant, Christina. In a few hours, if he can find his passport, they’ll be catching a flight to London, where he’s due to appear at an event called Autographica, alongside assorted lesser astronauts, the cast of Moonraker and a man in an Ewok suit.
“It’s pretty well understood at the level of having gone to the moon that we don’t sign autographs anymore,” Aldrin says. Christina interjects: “I want you to focus. You’re coming to Australia to talk about Mission To Mars.” Well, that’s my fault for asking. “No,” she says firmly. “If I’m not around, he tends to tell stories.”
Buzz lights his engines. “My version of the future. Which used to be called Unified Space Vision…” Once he gets going, he is like a communications satellite hurtling through space. There is no friction slowing him down. He broadcasts his signal uninterrupted, kilobytes at a time.
Here’s the plan: A spacecraft slingshots around Mars orbit and back to Earth in perpetuity, using minimal fuel for course corrections. Think of it like a cable car, he says, only it’s travelling at ten kilometres a second. Each time it passes Mars, three men and three women climb off. Near Earth, another six astronauts get on.
“We should stay in Mars orbit until we’re ready to commit to permanence,” he says. “That means going down, staying down and not coming back.” First we land on an asteroid, as practice for a manned mission to Phobos, the larger of Mars’s moons. From there, astronauts direct robots to build a base.
In his view, manned missions to the moon are a dead end. NASA should foster private sector space tourism, exploit the moon’s mineral resources and collaborate with Russia, China, India and whoever else wants in on Mars. Earlier this month, the space agency revealed a plan to send SpaceX’s Dragon capsule there to bring back samples.
Aldrin has been banging this drum since 1985, and is qualified to do so. His doctoral thesis on orbital mechanics was incorporated into NASA operating procedures. No-one has tested an ‘Aldrin Cycler,’ but the concept of using a planet’s gravitational force to hurl a passing spacecraft in another direction is well-established.In 2010, he travelled on Air Force One to the John F. Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, to hear President Obama outline the future of the US space programme. “We park. ‘Hey, bring Aldrin up to the door.’ The two of us step out and we wave. That’s why I was on the airplane,” he shrugs. They didn’t get to chat.
Parts of Obama’s speech did seem to have been lifted from his book, though. Of the moon, the president said bluntly “we’ve been there before.” He spoke of sending humans into Mars orbit by the mid-2030s, and to the surface in his lifetime. The only specific commitment was to land on an asteroid by 2025.
“I made that into a very good mission,” Aldrin says. “I had an asteroid we could get to in two days. I go to commercial companies – Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources. ‘Well, we’re too busy with telescopes. We’re too busy getting water from the moon.’ Don’t they like a good idea?”
If only NASA had listened to him, he says, it wouldn’t have wasted thirty years and $200 billion on the Space Shuttle programme, when it could have been developing reusable rockets capable of journeying beyond Low Earth Orbit instead.
“Human nature doesn’t want to admit that somebody on the outside had an idea that they are responsible to develop, so they keep charging ahead with blinders on,” Aldrin says. “And they don’t like it when I criticise what they’re saying.”
Three years ago, Obama signed a law establishing that the Apollo astronauts have the right to keep mementoes from the moon. In a series of lawsuits, NASA had argued that they were government property.
Not that Aldrin has much left. His slide rule and the handwritten prayer he carried went up for auction years ago. His church lost the chalice that he used to celebrate communion at Tranquility Base. His Omega Speedmaster watch was stolen on route to the Smithsonian Museum. Even the Andy Warhol print of him standing on the lunar surface is gone, filched by his third wife, Lois.
His most treasured possessions are a circuit-breaker from the Eagle that broke off as they were exiting, and a pen, his improvised solution to re-complete the circuit, so they could take off again. For all the fail-safes and contingency plans, the mission was only ever a malfunction or a miscalculation from disaster.
Aldrin is a survivor. His mother, Marion Moon (yes, really) overdosed on pills, partly because she couldn’t handle the pressure of her son being famous. His grandfather shot himself in the mouth. “I have a significant concern about the mental health of astronauts, because I’m aware of its price in my family, in myself,” Aldrin says.
Buzz lived on whisky and Kentucky Fried Chicken for a while. He crashed cars, broke down doors and turned up drunk to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. As chairman of the National Association for Mental Health, he often missed events because he was too depressed. But he’s made it this far. “I. Will. Succeed,” he says, still with the determination of the kid who came third in his class at West Point.
All these years, he’s had to put up with people asking if he’s jealous of Armstrong going first when, fact is, the Eagle was awfully cramped and Neil was closest to the hatch. Then there’s the crowd that believes the landing was faked. When Bart Sibrel challenged him to swear on the Bible, on camera, that he had been to the moon, Aldrin tried to shrug him off. Then Sibrel called him “a coward, a liar and a thief,” so he punched him in the jaw.
“Who thinks I did the wrong thing? Nobody,” Aldrin says. “He filed a claim against me for assault and battery. I had to pay. But it was worth it. It was the best PR I ever got.” For a man who has appeared on The Simpsons, Dancing With The Stars, The Big Bang Theory and Sesame Street, this is saying something. If it promotes space exploration, and there’s a cheque, Buzz is game.
He enjoys feeling weightless, and takes sub-orbital flights when invited. Two years ago, he fronted a campaign for Axe deodorant that gave away twenty-three tickets on the Space Expedition Corporation shuttle. The ad showed a woman being rescued by a hunky fireman, only to abandon him for a guy in a spacesuit. Buzz could attest to the payoff – “nothing beats an astronaut” – from his time on the Los Angeles singles scene.
The winners were announced in December 2013, but because the flights were “dependent on the development of technologies,” the would-be astronauts remain grounded. Although investment is flowing in, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos being the latest billionaire to unveil a rocket, it has been a sobering year for private sector space exploration, punctuated by the crashes of a SpaceX Falcon rocket and Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two.
Next month, Ridley Scott’s new movie The Martian will open in cinemas, featuring Matt Damon as an astronaut left for dead on Mars, fighting to survive long enough to catch the next cycler home. Buzz hasn’t read the book, but he did have lunch with the author, Andy Weir, and from what he understands, the film “is going to thrill people, like Gravity,” and spur renewed interest in deep space missions.
For now, the red planet remains the preserve of robotic rovers – and dreamers. Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp’s Mars One project is in the process of selecting astronauts for a voyage that is more than slightly optimistically pencilled in for 2022. The Mars Society is preparing for a year-long training exercise at a remote base in the Canadian Arctic.
Aldrin doubts humans will set foot on Mars in his lifetime, but he does expect to see it some day, looking down from the stars. “If we can see the horizon, we want to know what’s beyond it,” he says. “It’s time to continue our journey.”