Buzz Aldrin – Out Of This World

We catch up with real-life superhero Buzz Aldrin, the second human being to set foot on the Moon. Lunar Module pilot of the greatest space epic of all – Apollo 11 – and one of only 12 men to walk on the Moon, Buzz is one of the last survivors. He tells his story to Nick Smith.


On 20th July 1969, at precisely 02:56:15 UTC, Commander Neil Armstrong of the United States Apollo 11 space mission took his ‘small step for [a] man’ and became the first human to set foot on the Moon. A crackle of static in the audio transmission meant that the small, but all-important word ‘a’ wasn’t heard by the 600 million glued to their televisions back on Earth. For such a small word, its absence had a devastating effect on the second part of Armstrong’s heroic statement, which was of course, ‘one giant leap for mankind’.

Nineteen minutes later, Lunar Module pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr. followed his commander onto the unknown surface of this brave new world. The ‘astronaut-explorers’, as they were described in a NASA press release issued a few weeks before the Saturn V rocket lifted off to take three men into space – the third was Michael Collins, ‘the quiet one’ – had arrived. The following day, the New York Times ran with that most perfect of headlines, four words that said it all: ‘MEN WALK ON MOON’.

Apollo 11 was, and still is, one of the greatest things we’ve ever done. BBC Science Editor David Whitehouse reckons that in ten thousand years when historians come to write down the defining achievements of the twentieth century, ‘they might mention nuclear energy or DNA. But they will write of the first humans to walk on the Moon.

Children will still be listening to the words of Neil Armstrong as he stepped out of the Lunar Module. We don’t have the words of Christopher Columbus, but the words of Neil Armstrong will be with us forever.’ When I spoke with Buzz Aldrin he described the first Lunar Landing as ‘a cardinal event’.

Of the 12 men ever to have walked on the Moon, only four are still with us (apart from Buzz, the others are David Scott of Apollo 15, Charles Duke of Apollo 16, and Harrison Schmitt Apollo 17). And so for me to chat with someone who’s done something so ‘out of this world’ was a huge honour. Next time you look up at the Moon, stop and think – think – that once humans were walking on it. How did they get there? How did they get back? What was it like? Over an hour I managed to ask Buzz these very questions. And although he’s answered each one more times than he can remember, he remained good-natured, genuinely wanting to spread the word about Apollo 11.

This might have something to do with the fact that these days he’s now a professional space ambassador. But it might also have more to do with him wanting people to believe. As strange as it may sound, there are still conspiracy theorists out there who think that the Lunar Landings were faked by the US government. This annoys Buzz to the point where he once famously punched a journalist who had called him a liar and a coward to his face. Not something you want to do to an ex-fighter pilot who flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War, let alone a character that signs his emails ‘Rocket Man’.

‘I called it magnificent desolation,’ says Buzz describing his first impressions of the Moon after descending the flimsy aluminium ladder to the grey powdery surface. ‘The magnificence was the achievement for humanity, for us to be able to get there. But the scene was so desolate, totally lifeless. It probably hasn’t changed much in 100,000 years. It’s not a hospitable place. You have to have a compelling reason to want to go there.’

That reason had little to do with the spirit of humanity, the thirst for knowledge or even the thrill of exploration. American President John F Kennedy famously said: ‘We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ But of course, what Kennedy – who was assassinated before Apollo 11 achieved its aims – really wanted was to get the upper hand in the Cold War by beating the Russians. The US had been shocked by Russia putting Sputnik – the first artificial Earth satellite – into space. They were also shocked when they put the first dog into space, and by the time they’d sent Yuri Gagarin up there, shock didn’t begin to describe it.

The race to the Moon was now a proxy war, and with the death of Kennedy, it became a debt of honour, with lunar success becoming central to the American national identity. ‘When the President said we were going to the Moon,’ says Buzz, ‘the Air Force had already been studying missions to the Moon – including manned flight – so it wasn’t an unexplored area.’ He goes on to say that while the Russian space programme was disorganised and decentralised, NASA had just one aim: to get astronauts to the Moon.

‘What I remember most,’ says Buzz, ‘was the glance between Neil Armstrong and myself just a few seconds after we had touched down when the engines were shut off. We had just completed the most critical door-opening for exploration in all of humanity. When Neil said those comforting words – “the Eagle has landed” – that was the moment of triumph. Seen from the Moon, every other human except the three of us was up there on that small object in the sky called Earth. We knew that the pressure was on us to make the landing. If you don’t make the landing, you can’t go outside.’

But that’s not the way the world’s media saw it. ‘For them, the most important thing was going down the ladder. But that was the easy bit. Neil was an excellent photographer and he took that great picture. I was walking along the lunar surface, and he said, “Hey stop”, and he just took it. We call it the “visor picture” because the reflection in the visor shows the landing craft and the white-suited astronaut taking the picture, as well as my shadow. People ask me why it is such an iconic shot. I’ve got three words: Location. Location. Location’. Buzz recalls that while millions scrutinised their every move back home, ‘we didn’t get to see any of this until we were on the aircraft carrier. And I had this impulse to tap Neil on the shoulder and say: “Hey Neil, we missed the whole thing!” It was a proud moment to be an American citizen; to salute that flag on the surface of the Moon.’

I asked Buzz what effect going to the Moon had on him: ‘For sure Apollo 11 changed my life.

But each individual has their life changed by different events. He’s referring to what can only be described as coming down to Earth with a bump. For all the ticker tape parades, the handshakes with presidents and royalty of all nations, the adoration of the American public and the opportunity to cash in and become wealthy, Buzz’s world collapsed. Unable to answer the question ‘What’s next?’ the all-American hero slid into depression, unemployment and alcoholism. He became the world’s most famous down-and-out, and as he says, ‘it’s harder to be a bum when you’re a celebrity than when you’re no one.’

With the US military unwilling to tolerate its heroes being anything other than perfect, Buzz’s career tanked. Forced out of the service, he became a second-hand car salesman trying to unload Cadillacs onto a public that only wanted to shake the hand of an astronaut. But, proving that you can’t keep a good man down, Buzz bounced back in true showboating fashion, his salvation in the form of the banking heiress Lois Driggs. They married on Valentine’s Day in 1988, and ever since Buzz has been a sober freelance astronaut advising governments and schoolchildren the world over on how to get back into space. It seemed that the real-life Superman needed his own Lois to get back up and running.

Buzz says that put simply, going to the Moon ‘was a demonstration of our evolution and our capabilities’. A master of understatement, he reveals that he thinks ‘we learned quite a lot. And it is now appropriate to build on that, to move onto a much bigger and grander objective by going to another planet. Not just to visit it a few times, but to set up a sustaining presence. Eventually, humans will leave the Solar System and go to other stars. Not in my lifetime. But we will learn how to do that.’

Nick Smith is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club. His latest book is ‘Travelling Light’ and will be published in autumn 2024.