Buzz Aldrin: Getting to the moon was easy, coming back—not so much

  • Jul 1, 2016
  • Optometry Times
  • By: Jolie Higazi

Boston—Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two people to set foot on the moon, says getting there wasn’t the hard part—getting back was. He addressed attendees of the American Optometric Association at Optometry’s Meeting 2016, detailing his journey to doing what was once said was impossible and explaining the many struggles along the way.

“We’re not here to talk about my wearing eyeglasses,” he says. “I do wear them, and that seems to be unavoidable when you get to my age.”

Related: Understanding vision problems in space

According to Aldrin, the big takeaway from the Apollo mission is that when people work together—the Apollo mission was a collaboration of about half a million people—they can accomplish the impossible.

“I’ll share the story, to see how the world can fulfill their next impossible dream,” he says.

His destiny

Originally from Montclair, NJ, Aldrin took his first flight at age 2 with his father Edward Aldrin, an aviation pioneer and engineer from MIT. His mother Marian, whose maiden name was ironically Moon— was born in 1903, the same year that the Wright Brothers took their first flight.

“I guess you could say that pioneering was my destiny,” he says.

After graduating third in his class at the military academy at West Point, Aldrin joined the Air Force where he fought in Korean War and afterward flew an F100 jet patrolling the Germany border.

More: Glaucoma and outer space: What’s the connection?

At this time in 1957, the Soviet Union pulled off an unexpected feat—launching Sputnik into orbit, the first artificial satellite in space. This lit the fire for American space research when a year later NASA was formed.

“The space age was born and a space race was about to begin,” Aldrin said.

Soon after, President John F. Kennedy asked NASA what was possible in terms of space and celestial travel. He was told it would take 15 years to put a man on the moon.

Believing more was possible, Kennedy challenged America in 1961 to commit to the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade, which was before anyone had even been put in orbit, Aldrin says.

“We didn’t have the know-how, but we did have a leader with the vision, the determination, and the courage and confidence that we could get there by publicly stating a goal and putting a specific time on that achievement,” he said. “President Kennedy gave us no way out.”

NASA and the moon

Wanting to be a part of the new space frontier, Aldrin returned to the U.S. from Germany and continued his education to earn his doctorate degree at MIT in 1963. Not realizing it at the time, his thesis “Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous” would be critically important in his future with NASA.

The first time Aldrin applied to NASA, he was rejected, but being as determined as he was, he reapplied the next year and was accepted. Among his space colleagues he was known as Dr. Rendezvous, after his thesis work.

“I’m not sure that it was always meant as a compliment, especially from the Navy guys,” Aldrin says, laughing.

During his first space flight as pilot of Gemini 12 in 1966, he set a record for extravehicular activity (EVA) by spacewalking for almost five and a half hours. This was also the mission where Aldrin took the world’s first space selfie.

For the Apollo mission that followed, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Aldrin estimated a 60 percent chance of being able to successfully land on the moon on their first attempt and a 95 percent chance of returning safely.

“Having been in combat, those odds were pretty good,” Aldrin says.

Magnificent desolation

He says he saw the moon as a “sea of tranquility.” The first words that came to his mind after stepping on the moon were “magnificent desolation.” Magnificent indicating what a huge achievement it was and desolation referring to the blackness of the space on the moon’s horizon.

Aldrin took a few photos while on the moon, perhaps most notably “The Bootprint.” (Take a look at the image HERE.) Aldrin’s son, a photo enthusiast, often tells him it is not fair that he has taken so few pictures, and they are some of the nation’s most iconic images. Aldrin’s response is, “Once you’ve got it right, why try and top it?”

Armstrong took a famous photo of Aldrin standing on the moon with the reflection of the camera and the spacecraft in his visor (See the image HERE.). When Aldrin gets asked what made the photo so popular, he replies, “I’ve got three words: Location, location, location.”

Innovation and teamwork overcomes obstacles

When he and Armstrong were getting ready to go to sleep after experiments were completed, Aldrin noticed a knob of the circuit breaker was broken off. This was the engine arm circuit breaker used to ignite the engine. In other words, they could potentially be stuck on the moon with no ability to get back to Earth.

After calling Mission Control, the astronauts were supposed to sleep as the ground team research a way to rewire the breaker by morning.

“You are two guys on the moon, not sure whether that engine is going to work, and we went to sleep,” Aldrin says, laughing. “Those are fighter pilots! They do what they’re told to do.”

By morning, NASA could not come up with a plan of how to rewire the breaker, so Aldrin started thinking, and with a little improvisation, he solved the problem by maneuvering a felt tip pen to push the breaker.

“Even with years of careful planning,” Aldrin says, “something so small could cause a difficult time. It could have been embarrassing.”

Finally returning back to earth, the astronauts were welcomed back as heroes. However, Aldrin understood the crowds were not cheering the astronauts, but for what they represented: doing the impossible.

“The true value of Apollo is the amazing story of innovation and teamwork that overcame many obstacles,” Aldrin says.

A half million people were involved in working toward the common goal of reaching the moon, he says, from the engineers to the technicians to the seamstress who made their uniforms.

By venturing into space, life is improved for everyone on earth, Aldrin says. The innovations that have come from space-based research are used in daily life in medical advances, cellphones, microwaves, GPS devices, televisions, and more. These advancements would not be possible without investments in space programs.

Coming home

After returning to earth, Aldrin wrote a biography called Return to Earth. He says it wasn’t called Journey to the Moon because the hard part wasn’t getting there but coming back and figuring out how he would live in his new celebrity status while he was having a great deal of trouble with his marriage and family and fighting bouts of depression.

Aldrin soon lost hope and passion, not knowing what to do in his life after such a pinnacle experience as he had in making history on the moon.

He began drinking heavily.

“You can’t solve mental problems when your mind is all screwed up with alcohol,” he says, “but I got the help I needed and figured out what was needed to keep going forward.”

Today, Aldrin has over 37 years of sobriety and puts all his energy and efforts into focusing on his passion for future-based achievements.

“I’m very grateful for the help that I received, so don’t anybody be afraid to ask for help when you need it,” Aldrin says. “I’m so glad that I did.”

He said at age 86, his life is better than it’s ever been, and he sees a wonderful future in space.

“I won’t be around to see much of it happening,” he says, “but I want to do everything I can to lay the groundwork.”