"That's not going to happen."
In just five words, Buzz Aldrin casually broke my heart. Which is to say, the former astronaut-turned-rapper reminded me that despite the haze of nostalgia surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, Aldrin is still very much an engineer, a logician who deals in pragmatic extremes. Not some romantic willing to dive into hyperbole or seemingly-pointless hypotheticals.
The question prompting the above response seemed simple enough at the time: "If you could go back for another Moon walk or orbit Mars tomorrow, which would you choose?"
A total softball question, I admit, but I'd just spent the last half hour listening to Aldrin mostly ramble and rehash much of what he's already said about NASA's failures, China, why we should focus on Mars, and more. Not all that surprising, considering Xeni found Aldrin relatively incoherent when she interviewed him a year ago.
However, I had figured a simple question like this might ground us, get the 79-year-old legend reflective &mdash possibly even a little misty-eyed &mdash or at least waxing semi-poetic. After all, Aldrin took part in one of the most glorious spectacles ever captured on film, an event which garnered what was, at the time, the most-watched live TV broadcast ever (some 600 million viewers). Getting to the Moon is still the gold standard to which invention and engineering can frequently be compared &mdash i.e. "We've gone to the Moon, but I still can't get cell phone reception in my home?"
All I wanted was for Aldrin to utter something like: "Well, my boy, I'd orbit Mars, because it's somewhere we've never been. And we should never stop pushing the limits of what's possible." etc. etc.
Find out what he actually said, after the jump, along with more reflections with/of/from the man Snoop Dogg now calls "Doc Ron," a shortened version of Aldrin's nickname "Dr. Rendezvous."
photo by NASA via Boston Globe via Todd Lappin"I couldn't go tomorrow even if I wanted," Aldrin continued, "First of all there's training. And we don't have the capability to get there [Mars] just yet. Also, I've already had my turn. There's a long list of people that deserve to go before me."
I understand his point, especially that last one. It's a sentiment shared by many, like those involved with the Artemis Project which puts it this way: "12 men have walked on the Moon. When do you get to go?" Aldrin, too, has explored this idea with ShareSpace, a non-profit he founded to support the democratization of space tourism.
Yet, at the same time, I didn't need Aldrin to deconstruct why my question was improbable. I know it's improbable, which is why I pressed on.
"Right," I replied, "But hypothetically, let's say Richard Branson calls you up tomorrow and says, 'I've got the tech; you won't be stepping on anyone's toes to go; where you travel is your decision...' Which would you choose?"
Alas, no dice. In the slightest.
"Branson doesn't have that technology," Aldrin answered matter of factly. Then, seemingly realizing our conversation wasn't going where I'd probably wanted, he added, "Look, I'm pretty literal; that's all."
To be fair, other reporters have experienced this side of Aldrin. "We didn't go there to have feelings or thoughts," he recently told one journalist. "We went there to do things and to report on the things that we did."
Aldrin walking on the Moon.
It's actually a wonder I even got to speak with Aldrin. Never mind it was two days before he was set to embark on his "40th Anniversary Tour" &mdash which his publicist, whose official title is "Mission Control Director," said was booked solid with interviews from 6am to 6pm.
Instead, consider that for a number of years Aldrin was not only completely adverse to giving interviews, but lost in depression and alcoholism. As Susan Faludi recounts in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Aldrin's rise and fall came rather quickly.
On the Apollo publicity tour, he was introduced to the bittersweet nature of celebrity. At myriad public appearances, he and Armstrong faced a seemingly unending barrage of interviews, cameras, microphones and hordes of screaming fans. "People were crawling all over us...," Aldrin once explained, "I was overcome by nausea and dizziness."*
By the time the decorated moonwalker left NASA in 1971, he'd "sunk in a morass of despair." Over the years, the state of his career, a failed marriage and what he was going to do with his life all weighed heavily on him. He explores all of this quite candidly in Magnificent Desolation, and today he doesn't seem to hold back in interviews, including this one.
"I was done talking about all this," he told me. "If I tried public speaking, I'd freeze up. But I've met and married a woman who has helped me. Now I'm taking on new challenges that 20 years ago I wouldn't have. I realize I want to reach the younger generation; that's why I've got a Twitter and a BlackBerry."
Before I even have a chance to ask him about Snoop Dogg, Aldrin wonders, quite proudly, and completely out of nowhere, "Have you seen my video?" He tells me he worked with professional voice coaches in preparation for the stunt. Previously, he appeared alongside Elton John to sing part of "Rocket Man," a performance Aldrin admitted to me was "embarrassing."
While I appreciate his efforts, I'd be lying if I said Aldrin's publicity push didn't strike me as a somewhat transparent attempt to seem hip and, to put it more crassly, sell books. Of course, I'd also be lying if I didn't give it up that Aldrin is a true renegade, worthy hero and a total badass.
He has never shied away from venting that NASA astronauts were forced into early retirement, didn't receive adequate compensation, and even more interestingly to me, aren't given their due respect for their service.
"Anyone who visits a foreign country on behalf of their government gets called an Ambassador," he told me, "That's why I'd like to be known as a Lunar Ambassador, the Honorary Lunar Ambassador... When China gets to the Moon, you don't think those astronauts are going to be taken care of for life?"
Does he sound bitter? A little. Does he deserve to be? I'd argue, yes.
After all, despite the above points, the guy cannot escape the daunting estimate that 6% of all Americans still believe the Moonlanding to be a hoax. Considering he risked his life for science and his country, and having talked to him about this, I find that stat more sad and depressing than ever before.
On the surface, it can certainly be amusing to watch what happens when his buttons get pushed. Like when Ali G famously asked Aldrin, "What was it like not being the first man on the Moon? Was you ever jealous of Louis Armstrong?"
...or when conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel really got to Aldrin in 2002, prompting fisticuffs...
"I got to a point where my emotions took over," Aldrin explained when I asked him whether he regretted punching Sibrel. "There are people who have been misled and it's not their fault, but they continue to believe otherwise. It's not a good idea [to react by hitting someone], because there are legal matters that follow, but other people would thank me for doing what I did and taking a stand."
Days later, I find myself navigating Aldrin's web site, staring at snapshots of him through the years: Buzz posing with President Regan. Buzz with Liz Taylor. Buzz holding a bald eagle.
As I come to the famous photo Aldrin snapped of his footprint on the Lunar surface (above), I remember his desire to be called the Honorary Lunar Ambassador. At the time, I had told him I'd happily call him whatever he wished &mdash both because I hoped to win favor with him and, well, I really do feel he deserves it.
"Thanks," he said, the realist in him taking over, "But I need the President or Secretary of State to call me that."
*When I spoke to Aldrin, I mentioned the statistic that 50% of all astronauts report feeling a perpetual state of nausea while in space. I asked whether that was his experience. It wasn't. Ironically, it took returning to Earth for those symptoms to become an issue for him.