Armstrong and Aldrin: Touched by the moon

By Phil Taylor

Aldrin is one of only 12 men to have walked on the Moon, a place he describes as a 'magnificent desolation'. Photo / Supplied
Aldrin is one of only 12 men to have walked on the Moon, a place he describes as a 'magnificent desolation'. Photo / Supplied

Forty years ago come July 21 (New Zealand time), Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin stepped carefully down a nine-rung ladder on to the surface of the moon. They landed in an area named the Sea of Tranquillity, ensuring their lives thereafter would be anything but tranquil.

What is it about humans and being first, about our fascination with winners? The need to beat the Russians drove America to the moon, hero worship chased Neil Armstrong into seclusion - the first man on the moon once sued his barber for selling locks of his hair.

Armstrong's aversion to the limelight doesn't surprise fellow moonwalker, Alan Bean.

"To live up to the role of the first to step on the moon, boy, that's a tough role," he told the makers of the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon

The Soviets put the first satellite in space, the first animal, first man, first spacewalker, first woman and were first to orbit the moon.

At stake was the title of most-advanced nation. That was a badge President John F. Kennedy thought worth having and set America cracking.

The Apollo programme cost US$23 billion, employed 300,000 people and scooped for the United States the first moon landing, first man on moon and - less famously - first pee on the moon. The last honour went to Buzz Aldrin - the second man, and consequently the world's second-most famous astronaut, to step on to what he described as that "magnificent desolation".

Aldrin explains in the documentary that attending to the call of nature was the reason he lingered upon alighting from the lunar module, Eagle. Better to have that out of the way, he reasoned, before embarking on the task of taking thousands of photographs of the moon's rock-strewn surface.

Aldrin is the owner of another first the first aged former moonwalker to punch a moon-landing sceptic in the face. Bart Sibrel, a documentary maker and proponent of the the theory that the moon landing was an elaborate hoax, was the recipient of the fist of a 72-year-old Aldrin. Sibrel, the BBC reported in 2002, had called the astronaut, "a coward, a liar and a thief".

Six missions landed astronauts on the moon. Why fake it six times over? But moon landing conspiracy theorists are on the rise as time marches on from that celestial feat - all six landings occurred in the space of three years and yet man hasn't set foot there since Apollo 17 in 1972.

A survey on behalf of E&T magazine, published by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, found that more than a quarter of people surveyed did not believe the astronauts actually landed on the moon. This level of scepticism is far higher than a decade ago, when a Gallup poll found just 6 per cent of Americans did not think the landings were genuine.

If you were at all susceptible to defining your life by that extraordinary episode, you would be annoyed by the naysayers and you might be at risk of unravelling. Aldrin ticks both boxes.

The conspiracy clique still rile. "I'm tired of hearing that nonsense," Aldrin told an interviewer last year. "The evidence of the mission's success is categorical. Besides, the Russian competitors would be the first to cry foul if we, their adversaries, took part in fraud. But that's fine. Many people also exercise their legitimate right to brag about having seen UFOs and other weird things. It's not worth arguing with people like that."

UFOs? Apollo 14 astronaut and moonwalker Edgar Mitchell doesn't claim to have seen UFOs but he has become an advocate for some who say they have. His story got traction when he repeated it a year ago on Larry King Live. In essence, it goes like this: he grew up near Roswell, New Mexico. Many years later, while visiting the district, he was approached by people who told him that they were witnesses to the 1947 "Roswell incident", the crash of an alien spacecraft.

They were "some of the old-timers ... people who were there at the time and intimately involved, but were sworn to secrecy and threatened if they didn't [keep the secret]. They wanted to tell their story before they passed on and they wanted to tell a local boy and they figured somebody who had gone to the Moon could be trusted, " he told North and South from his home in Florida this year.

Among them were "folk from the sheriff's department and the undertaker's office". Undertakers? "Well, they had to get caskets and things for the deceased aliens. There were three aliens that were dead and one that was alive at that point."

Mitchell, 79, believes them, believes that key decision-makers decided it best covered up, notes that it was during the Cold War, suggests they didn't want the Russians to know, and says he believes the enormity of it and the fear of being labelled a crank kept the few who knew silent.

Those to have gone into space gain a perspective unique to the rest of us gazing up through our blue atmosphere. A few have got to stare back from space at Earth afloat in inky blackness, "that fragile jewel ... hung up in space", as Armstrong and Aldrin's Apollo 11 colleague Michael Collins described it.

A few of the 12 moonwalkers subsequently found religion while Eugene Cernan (Apollo 11), the last man on the moon, spoke of something that is beyond us and our prescriptive religions.

"Coming home, we had jobs to do, but whenever we got to look out the window ... It's an overwhelming experience," Mitchell, recently told an interviewer. "It was accompanied by this bliss, or ecstasy - a wow experience ... I realised that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft, and of my partners had been manufactured as prototypes in some ancient generation of stars, because matter is created in star systems."

Rather than intellectual, Mitchell describes his epiphany as a visceral experience. Two years after he came back to Earth, he set up the Institute of Noetic Sciences, dedicated to research in areas such as parapsychology.

After Aldrin, who took communion on the Moon, returned to Earth, he fell into alcoholism, depression and suffered a nervous breakdown which led to time spent in psychiatric care.

He's 79 now, 30 years off the booze and long back in business. He's an advocate of space tourism and is working on a lottery to give the ordinary punter a shot at an out-of-this-world experience. As a speaker he commands a minimum US$30,000 fee and he has recently recorded a rap song with Snoop Dog and has a new book to sell, Magnificent Desolation, which charts his rise, fall and re-emergence.

Aldrin touches on that personal topography here, in an interview with the Guardian , "I inherited tendencies in different directions [depression and addictive personality] and ... if you feed them with a life of perfection and discipline and then remove that all of a sudden, it's probably going to go back to some of the more deep-seated concerns about self-worth and achievement. You did that [went to the Moon]. What are you doing now? You get a job as a car salesman and you're a horrible car salesman. What does that do to a person's ego."

And here, in Brazilian magazine Veja, "Since I was on display so much and since I got so attached to the image of an acclaimed hero, readapting to normal life was a challenge. Being at the centre of such a grand accomplishment made my weaknesses surface. On the other hand, the trip reinforced my spirituality."

Aldrin was the quintessential astronaut. Born in Montclair, New Jersey on January 20, 1930, to Marion Moon, daughter of an Army Chaplain, and Edwin Eugene Aldrin, an Air Force colonel and aviation pioneer, he graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point and became a jet-fighter pilot, flying 66 Korean War combat missions during which he shot down two enemy MiG fighters.

He returned to his studies and wrote his thesis entitled Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous, gaining him the moniker "Dr Rendezvous" among Nasa colleagues.

These days Aldrin is an enthusiastic advocate of colonising the moon and then Mars, and invented the "Aldrin Cycler", a spacecraft trajectory that passes near Earth and Mars and could be used as a shuttle route between the planets.

Having re-engaged with the stars and in Armstrong's absence from public profile, Aldrin has become the representation of man in space. It's no coincidence the Toy Story character is named Buzz Lightyear and perhaps no bad thing that Aldrin abandoned Edwin in favour of the nickname that emerged in childhood from his little sister mispronouncing brother as "buzzer".

The two Buzz's share an enthusiasm for space exploration and the real Buzz has pronounced himself "happy with the tribute", though noting the use of his name had not made him one cent.

Aldrin's reaction to some of the findings of the E&T poll is uncertain. Eleven out of 1009 people surveyed thought Buzz Lightyear was the first person to step on the Moon. A further eight thought it was Louis Armstrong and less than three-quarters named Armstrong.

Aldrin may not agree with Mitchell's views on Roswell but they agree it is time to get back out there. "We are a tiny grain of sand in a vast universe and and we got to the next grain of sand, the Moon," says Aldrin.

"Well," says Mitchell, asked to sum up by an interviewer following his appearance on Larry King Live, "I think the only thing that people [need to] understand is that our star system has a finite lifetime and we've got to continue our space exploration.

"We only have a couple more billion years to be on the planet."

- additional reporting by agencies

- NZ Herald

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