“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” – John F. Kennedy – 35th President of the United States, assassinated in 1963.
Education and flight experience
Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr., better known as ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, was born on 20 January 1930 in New Jersey in the United States. His mother’s name, appropriately enough, was Marion Moon, whilst his father, Edwin Aldrin, was an interwar aviation pioneer. In 1951, Buzz Aldrin graduated with honours from the US Military Academy at West Point in New York. He was third in his class and had earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
However, Aldrin’s education did not stop at the Military Academy or in the air force. He later continued studying and earned a Doctorate of Science in Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His thesis, Manned Space Rendezvous, would later become instrumental in developing procedures for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) missions. Later in his life, no less than six other educational institutions would award honorary degrees to Aldrin.
Life as an astronaut
After earning his doctorate, Aldrin returned to the air force and was transferred to the Air Force Space Systems Division, before becoming a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. In 1963, Buzz Aldrin was included in NASA’s ‘Astronaut Group Three’, the astronaut group that bore the most casualties during the ‘Space Race’ years. Aldrin became involved in the Gemini Programme and in 1966 he established a new record for Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), whilst orbiting the Earth with Gemini 12. Aldrin spent five and a half hours outside the spacecraft during that mission. EVA duties are usually referred to as ‘space walking’.
With President Kennedy’s words of conquering the moon echoing in NASA scientists’ ears, the famous series of Apollo missions began. With his expertise in ‘manned space rendezvous’, Aldrin soon became an important asset to the Apollo Programme. He even served as backup pilot for Apollo 8, which performed the first manned flight around the moon. On 16 July 1969, a Saturn V rocket launched the Apollo 11 capsule into space. Its crew was Neil Armstrong, the commander, Michael Collins, the command module pilot, and Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot. This became the first lunar landing mission in the history of mankind. After separating from the final stages of the Saturn V rocket, Apollo 11 began orbiting the Moon. On 20 July, the lunar module, Eagle, separated from the command module, flown by Collins. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin piloted the Eagle and performed the first landing on the moon in the Sea of Tranquillity. These lunar modules were built by Bell (famous for its helicopters) and were controlled by Attitude Control Thrusters.
Technically, Aldrin spoke the first words from the moon, although the two astronauts were still inside the module at the time. Aldrin’s exact words were, “Contact light. Okay, engine stop. ACA out of detent.” Armstrong, the commander, had the privilege of becoming the first human to set foot on the moon. Aldrin soon followed Armstrong, becoming the second man to walk on the moon. After Neil Armstrong had spoken the famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, Buzz Aldrin made his first official transmission to Earth, “I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” The event was witnessed by the largest worldwide television audience up to that point in history.
After spending two and a half hours on the moon’s surface, the two astronauts returned to the Eagle, took off and rendezvoused with the command module. After returning to Earth, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin spent three weeks in quarantine, before emerging as international heroes. Buzz Aldrin commenced a national tour of goodwill and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the time he had retired from NASA in 1971, Aldrin had logged almost 300 hours in space, of which about 8 hours were spent ‘space walking’.
What about conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing was hoax? When asked how he responded to such allegations, Aldrin answered, “I lost my patience once and socked a guy, which created great publicity and cost me some legal fees. You are not going to change the minds of people who are looking for attention.”
Buzz Aldrin retired from the USAF as Commander of the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1971. He tried to live up to his celebrity status, but began to lead an unstructured life, marked by depression and alcoholism. However, Aldrin managed to overcome those obstacles. Since his retirement from NASA and the USAF, Buzz Aldrin has remained active in the industry. He has authored several books, helped design spacecraft for future Mars missions, lectured on Aerospace Engineering, received a patent for a permanent space station design and is now running a company called Starcraft Enterprises. In 2002, US President George W. Bush appointed Aldrin to serve on the Presidential Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry.
Buzz Aldrin has even been active in the entertainment industry, as he has appeared in several movies and television programmes. As a matter of interest, Buzz Lightyear’s character, from the Toy Story movie, was based loosely on Buzz Aldrin. More recently, Aldrin was involved in the well known 2007 documentary, ‘In the Shadow of the Moon.’
This article was written by Divan Muller and first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2008 - www.africanpilot.co.za
Photographs courtesy of NASA.