A few days ago while flying to Los Angeles, in general conversation with the passenger sitting to my right, I mentioned that I was on my way to LA for three hours and then flying straight home again. He quickly suggested that my fast turn around must have indicated that I was visiting for a funeral. With a grin and shake of the head I explained that it was quite the opposite -- I was in fact flying down to meet with one of the first two men to step foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. It didn't take long for him to interject his opinion on the matter:
"I don't understand all of this fascination and excitement about space exploration. We have so many problems here on earth already - I think we should be focusing on what's going on here at home. We should look inward. And what do we gain anyway, from all of this investment in space travel?"
I absorbed and contemplated his response but was nonetheless perplexed by it. I went on to share my perspective as I explained, "I think it's one of the great aspects of being human - we're curious. We want to explore, push the boundaries, take risks and tap into the unknown." The gentleman to my left concurred, leaned forward, and said, "The world was in a bit of a mess in 1969 as it is now. We were in the throes of the Vietnam War and the aftermath of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King's assassination. But when the world looked up and saw what these brave men were accomplishing, it unified the world and gave everyone hope."
I further added that it seems to be an elemental attribute of humanity to embark on discoveries outside of our own confines of earth -- it's what propels us into medical advances and new solutions for day to day challenges while animating our imagination - it's those few who are willing to put their life on the line and step into unknown lands with the potential chance of no return, that pave the path for seven billion other people.
As I walked into Aldrin's condo building I said to the concierge that I was going to #1004. "Ah, you're going to see Mr. Buzz," he replied. A few minutes later I was sitting in Buzz's office accompanied by an elevated heart rate and nervous fiddling of my hands, waiting for him to greet me. The sweeping, panoramic views through his floor to ceiling windows were breathtaking and vast, while a beautiful, white grand piano sat fittingly and elegantly in the corner of the neighboring room. On the shelf above my head I felt drawn to the red and white model airplane sitting on it. I soon recalled from earlier research, that it was a replica of the same plane that Buzz's father (also a pilot) had flown him in when he was ten years of age -- his first experience in the air.
Buzz burst into the room with brimming energy and immediately began organizing his desk - shuffling papers, moving objects around like one of those hand held plastic puzzles, seemingly creating space for his cereal and morning shake. I walked toward his desk and stood two feet in front of him for roughly twenty seconds (which felt much longer), staring down at him in his chair with an enormous, giddy, child-like grin and interrupted his nesting: "Can I shake your hand?" He abruptly halted, extended his hand for a lengthy greeting, flashed an exuberant smile and asked me to sit next to him. "This is my 'murse,'" he explained, as he held up a pastel blue leather bag with front and back pockets, filled with papers. I examined the appealing, petite bag and inquired, "what's a 'murse?'" And with a chuckle and contagious sense of humor he exclaimed, "a man-purse!" I liked him already.
Without much segue or bridge to his next thought he said something that really grounded me; words that exposed me to a perhaps distressed layer of himself that he appeared to have carried for forty-five years:
"No one really pays attention to the person in the Olympics who wins the silver or bronze medal. Credit is only really given to the gold medalist. After the moon landing I went into Neil's (Neil Armstrong) office and said, 'can we do something about this? About the fact that we're not given equal recognition for landing on the moon?'" According to Buzz, Neil replied, "I'm not going to try to rewrite history."
And there in front of me as I examined the man whose literal footprint would be forever prominent in the history books, I witnessed the child in him emerge - the person who lives somewhere in every human being ever alive who simply wants to be seen, noticed, and acknowledged for their unique contribution to life. The man who personified the intellect and boldness to soar to the moon and back was as human as the rest of us. Despite the 600 million people that sat captivated in front of their television set and witnessed his accomplishment, he still struggled with a deep-seated yearning to be truly seen.
On July 20, 1969 Buzz placed his foot onto the chalky, powdery-textured, airy, gray-colored moon floor, just minutes after Neil. Given their physical positions inside the confined capsule, along with the constraints of their bulky space suits, it was implausible for Buzz to have exited the capsule first even if that was the protocol. From my perspective, especially given the magnitude of his conquest on behalf of the world, it seemed as if his analogies of Olympic medals simply didn't apply or equate. As he went on to explain the dynamics of the lunar mission I saw his lips move but I didn't hear much of anything because I was in a different place, still sitting atop his words a few sentences prior. I mulled over the enormity of his triumphs: He set the record for EVA's (extra-vehicular activity - demonstrating that astronauts could work outside their spacecraft), was the first astronaut to hold a PhD, revolutionized theories for improved rendezvous and docking techniques (still used today for equipment sent to the International Space Station, based on his research at MIT), and propelled himself 250,000 miles into the cosmos on behalf of the human race.
I didn't know where to start but I interrupted him, and in a state of disbelief, like a parent attempting to illuminate a life lesson for her child, I began to explain the magnitude of his accomplishments, ending with, "after four days of travel, by the time you landed on the moon you were almost at the point of no return as you had only twenty seconds of fuel left! It doesn't matter that your feet touched the surface second - you, Neil, and Mike Collins did this together! Each of you were absolutely vital to the success of the endeavor." In an effort to divert the subject, he again infused some humor - "the point is that we landed. It's not like we had a dip stick to measure our fuel." My effort appeared to be futile but based on the concentrated, intense expression on his face as I spoke, I knew he was absorbing the sentiment. It was then that I persevered a bit more to step into his shoes - he had been wearing a story about himself for half a century that likely wasn't going to shed in an instant.
My thoughts wandered to an internal struggle -- one that Buzz has previously described in his book, 'Magnificent Desolation.' He said it was 'more challenging than getting to the moon and back' - his reference to a long term battle with depression. It's known that our servicemen have a monumental challenge ahead of them (many suffer with mental illness and clinical depression) after they leave the trauma of combat and aim to fold themselves back, neat and tidy, into society again. As one Iraq veteran once said, "one day we're in 'fight or flight' mode, losing our comrades in an instant to gunfire or a roadside bomb. The next day, we're supposed to fly home and attend a BBQ with family and friends. It's hard to adjust." Although Buzz fought in the Korean War and WWII as a skilled fighter pilot (flying F-86 Sabres in 66 missions in Korea, taking down two MIG's and piloting F-100's in Germany, carrying nuclear weapons on five-minute alert), his depression didn't seem to percolate until after his return from the moon. I asked if reaching the moon, his welcome back to earth with a globe full of celebrations and endless parties, and the subsequent abrupt change of pace, paralleled the force of adaptation that our servicemen experience. Looking a bit uncomfortable but beautifully raw, he explained, "the depression was genetic for me. My grandfather committed suicide before I was born and so did my mother, prior to Apollo 11." Fortunately, that long and morose phase of his life has passed but I still couldn't help but wonder if the genetic predisposition, coupled with his singular experience of reaching the moon and back, and the depletion of the aftermath wasn't the perfect storm that ignited his challenging and painful period ahead.
A sweet, petite and bubbly lady, probably twenty years Buzz's junior briefly entered the room -- I was informed that she is his girlfriend and would accompany him on his travels to Germany that evening and subsequently several other cities. I had to probe Buzz, "you must have learned a lot over the years about relationships as you've been married for extended periods of time, three times." He quipped, "Ha, I don't know about that." I couldn't decipher whether his coy response was specific to his generation or his disposition -- he reminded me of my grandfather, a man who could speak about the solemn intricacies of WWII comfortably, but if the topic of love and relationship entered the equation, he would slightly recoil. His voice deepened as he explained, "I know how to adore someone. But I also like to explore the contrast of people." Although a slightly cryptic response, I could clearly see the portrait of an eighty four year old roadmap of complexity on his face; an illustration of a man who knew well, how to feel deeply for others but perhaps not always understand how to weave it into the other highways of himself.
Again, without any relevant transition, in a modest temperament, Buzz established, "You know, I wasn't even supposed to be on Apollo 11. I was part of a backup crew. There was a tragedy. Two of the Gemini 9 mission pilots died (Elliott See and Charles Bassett) and I was the next in line to go and that's what led to me being part of the Apollo 11 crew." I gazed down at the convoluted diagram in front of me on his desk and probed further as to the direction he'd like to see of our privatized space programs such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. He picked up the paper and showed me his idea of a 'Mars Cycler' - a sustainable, low fuel solution that enables civilian travel, a subway of sorts, that, when on the suitable trajectory will transport people from earth to Mars in 5.5 months in each direction; an ingenious concept that's 20-30 years ahead of its time.
Buzz added, "I don't blame President Bush or President Obama for the direction of the space program, but I do feel that we need to partner with the Chinese at this point. Way back, when the Russians launched Sputnik and I kept hearing this beeping sound orbiting the earth, I wasn't very impressed. But when they launched the first man into space, I became very motivated to help figure out a way to get the first American to the moon; I just didn't know at the time that I'd be one of them. Now, instead of competing with other countries, it needs to be a global effort. I'd also like to see term limits for our politicians because they're stalling the progress." He went on to speak admiringly of his son, Andrew, president of Moon Express, Inc., "I speak to my son Andrew about these things all the time -- he will continue my legacy."
Buzz went on to fervently explain that the current goal needs to be focused on developing stations and robotics on earth's moon and Phobos, the moon of Mars. He declared, "we have to stop focusing on putting humans up there and get the habitats built first. This way we'll have more options." In "Magnificent Desolation" he declares, "we must explore or expire."
The Apollo 11 mission was forty-five years ago on the 20th of this month. Although I wasn't yet born at the time of the endeavor, I've watched the launch countless times over the years and each time the countdown to ignition begins, I imagine a glimpse into the cockpit where Buzz, Neil, and Mike sat as thousands of pounds of rocket fuel came to life from underneath and both the privilege and pressure of the world hinged on their successful landing and return. And as the rocket climbed so high that it was out of sight to the naked eye, I've felt a gravitational pull of emotion at the idea that those three men were well on their way to a land that no one had ever before understood or experienced.
Our aerospace technology has advanced markedly since 1969 but there's always a profound, lasting effect from the first giant leap and the birth of newly found hope. I frequently play footage of the launch for my son and daughter (five and three, respectively) and like myself, they never tire of the few minute, visual capsule of excitement and adventure.
Buzz Aldrin was the second man to step foot on the moon, but the first, joined by two others, who took the unimaginable by the reigns and brought planet earth along for the journey into the possible. A few hours prior to my flight to meet with Buzz, I asked my children, "Do you remember the shuttle launch I've shown you, with the three astronauts on board who first went to the moon? I'm going to meet with one of them today." My son turned his head toward the window and lifted his eyes toward the sky and it was in that instant, I appreciated the gentleman I would soon meet even more; he gifted us with something that's timeless -- an extraordinary reason to dream.