Buzz Aldrin: Engineer, Rapper, Heart-Breaking Realist

buzz portrait.jpg

"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."

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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."


Aldrin's footprint.

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. 1) The photo of Aldrin’s footprint is upside down.

    Don’t believe me? Try it.

    2) A large part self-discovery in Zen is being a realist. Not saying ‘Aum!’ over and over.

  2. In America, we don’t knight people or set them up for life just because they’re heroes (ok, being the president is a good gig). In fact, if you want lifetime hero status, you need to do more than One Awesome Thing. It’s almost required that you parlay that thing into other good stuff. See: John Glenn. We tend to hate on people who sit on their butts and cry in their beer and wonder why, oh why, they weren’t set up for life because of their one awesome deed.

    It took MAJOR cajones to strap himself into that seat, but HE GOT TO GO TO THE MOON. I can’t help feeling like, I dunno, maybe going to the moon is enough of a reward that you shouldn’t get bent out of shape about how you’ve been treated since getting home.

    In spite of this, Buzz is still fucking badass.

  3. 6% doesn’t seem all that daunting, considering only about 40% of Americans believe in evolution.

  4. If anyone has deserved a punch in the face for any reason in the history of the human race, Bart Sibrel would qualify for that stunt.

    One question I’ve always wanted Buzz to answer is “As an engineer, what did you initially think of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, and what was it that eventually changed your thinking on it?” I’ve looked around a bit for details on this, but they’re pretty sparse, and I can only conclude that originally he was skeptical but was eventually convinced by the facts backing up John Houbolt’s idea.

  5. Buzz is awesome. Of course a lot of the current push is marketing, but marketing yourself is what gets you ahead.

    @Brianary: Last I checked, Paris Hilton wasn’t being set up for life by the gov.

  6. I, too, wonder about the validity of life-time hero status. That said, had I walked on the moon, and then had to return to normal life, I don’t know that I could have coped at all. It is very impressive that he’s done as he has.

  7. You know how there’s always that one nitpicky jerk in the comments? Well, today it’s me:

    Ironically, it took returning to Earth for those symptoms to become an issue for him.

    That’s not irony.

  8. @2 – No, you just set them up for life when they’re a politician. Senators who do nothing keep the title and pension. Presidents keep the title, even if they were terrible leaders who did more harm than good. Or the USA elevates brain-dead “celebrities” to unbelievable heights for doing nothing more impressive than having sex with a camcorder running.

    Giving Aldrin, Armstrong, and any other astronaut who’s been to the moon an honourary title would be a minor allowance.

  9. Buzz is awesome. Although he may deserve to be arbitrarily “set up for life,” I wonder what he would be like if he was. Would he still push himself and demand the best of himself and his country? The answer…of course he would. The Buzzer is a total bad ass. You know this G!

  10. “Xeni found Aldrin relatively incoherent when she interviewed him a year ago.”

    The boingboing author is incoherent. Everything Buzz says is stuff NASA is already planning or has planned in the past. Its not like he just made it up, he is copying others. He is proposing a different kind of apple than we have now, not an orange.

    Buzz is talking long term. The long term where we have research bases on other planets, which NASA has planned in the next 20 years. The long term where trillions of dollars of raw materials are mined just a couple days travel away. The long term where life is made extinct by comets and asteroids hitting earth.

  11. Mr Aldrin, if Sibrel ever presents his face for punching again don’t hold back – I, and millions like me would contribute to your legal defence fund.

  12. Aldrin’s comments are a bit strange when you consider he and many other early astronauts have been the recipients of NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award. Aldrin got his about three years ago. So he’s already an ambassador!

  13. Somebody needs to tell Buzz that he’s probably already more famous and respected than any ambassador that ever lived, with the possible exception of Ben Franklin.

  14. “6% of all Americans still believe the Moonlanding to be a hoax.”

    This is also the percentage of people who still think that earth is flat.

    Is it not amazing?

  15. @CANTFIGHTTHEDITE, you should post that question to him on his Twitter page and report back to us his answer!

  16. @MadMolecule

    That is ironic. That is about as text book as irony can be. You’re thinking of sarcasm or something. For fucks sake you’d think irony was string theory.

    That is exactly the right reaction to a softcock like Sibrel accosting you like that. Violence is never, ever the solution, except in this one particular case. Where is was the single exact right solution.

    And maybe when you are beating the definition of irony into someone.

  17. @#8:

    I contest your nit-pick. I think that a case can be made so that it does qualify.

    According to the all-knowing wikipedia:

    “all senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is expressed and what is intended, or between an understanding or expectation of a reality and what actually happens”

    If we take it as an expectation of reality that astronauts will get nauseous because of their spaceflight, then an astronaut not being nauseous in space and then being nauseous in crowds after his return does seem to be an incongruity between the expectation and the reality, sometimes defined as irony.

    I just saying. It could work. Of course the fewer astronauts that get nauseous in space, the less ironic it becomes.

  18. In America, we don’t knight people or set them up for life just because they’re heroes (ok, being the president is a good gig). In fact, if you want lifetime hero status, you need to do more than One Awesome Thing.

    From the Veterans Pension Association.

    Who is eligible?

    Generally, you may be eligible if:

    * you were discharged from service under conditions other than dishonorable,

    * you served at least 90 days of active military service 1 day of which was during a war time period. If you entered active duty after September 7, 1980, generally you must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which called or ordered to active duty (There are exceptions to this rule)

    3 Months of being in the army including 1 single day of being involved in a War Period.

    Now I’m not opposed to this at all, quite the opposite I think all governments should pay their Veterans some kind of money to help them survive. However I also think if do something like attend the worlds first trip to the moon then there probably should be some sort of compensation for the rest of your days.

  19. Let’s face it, all rhetoric aside, the trip to the moon was a stunt designed to show up the Russians. It carried a cost our nation could easily afford. A trip to Mars needs to be multinational since no nation can bear the cost alone. It’s a different ball game, and when the cost/benefit analyses are done, most nations will find something better to do.

  20. Of course he is an engineer. I don’t think it would be sensible to send poets, composers or painters into an environment where the slightest mistake exposes you to hard vacuum.

    The poets, composers, painters etc will have to go later. It’s probably no different from when we left the trees to venture out on the savannah.

  21. Itsumishi, I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but I can tell you as a vet that you generally don’t get a military pension unless you do 20 years. There are a few rare exceptions, such as medical/disability retirements and early retirements due to force reductions, but nothing like what you listed above.
    Those requirements look more like eligibility for veteran’s benefits such as the VA Home Loan Guarantee and GI Bill, not for a pension. They are great benefits to be sure, but certainly nothing like a pension.

  22. Buzz Rules,
    America sucks.

    If we want to get to space in our current era we should buy tickets from the Chinese.

  23. Would someone who knows that Sibrel guy just shoot him and put him out of his paranoid misery.

  24. @PAULR: So, are you suggesting photos should be taken facing the sun?.

    Altough, professional photographers might differ with you @ that…

    HINT: The photo is nicely shot, having the sunlight coming from the photographer’s back.

  25. @Robulus: No. Irony is a mode of discourse in which the intended meaning of a statement is different from the literal meaning of its words. “Ironically” does not mean “contrary to what one might expect.”

    Ironically, it took returning to Earth for those symptoms to become an issue for him.

    The author is not describing a statement that is intended to convey a meaning other than its literal meaning. Instead of “ironically,” the author could have used “surprisingly,” or any other word or phrase that means “contrary to what one might expect.”

    For fucks sake you’d think irony was string theory.

    On this we agree.

  26. i.e. “We’ve gone to the Moon, but I still can’t get cell phone reception in my home?”

    Not to get completely snarky, but there’s a big difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.” You probably should’ve used “e.g.” in this case.

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