After becoming the first humans to ever walk on another celestial body, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned to the Apollo 11 lunar module to discover that a vital circuit breaker had simply broken off from the launch system. They were sat on the moon, and their car wouldn’t start.
Their fate, in front of an unprecedented global television audience of millions, could have been a slow death 240,000 miles from home, with Michael Collins condemned to fly back to Earth horribly alone. Buzz Aldrin, staying cool, jammed a pen into the hole and started the ignition.
Aldrin still has the pen.
It’s easy to forget how rudimentary much of the technology was in 1969 that somehow managed to slingshot men onto the surface of the moon – and perhaps even more improbably brought them back again.
Easy too to forget the backgrounds of the ordinary heroes who soared into the realm of myth. When the Apollo astronauts flew to the Moon, they received the same standard per diem pay that they would have done as military personnel away from base anywhere else: $8 per day. That’s before deductions, like room and board. They had a bed on the spacecraft after all. Aldrin still has his payslip: a grand total of $33.31. As a joke, one astronaut is said to have tried to submit an expenses claim for travel expenses at the standard eight cents per mile, which would have come to around $80,000. NASA’s reply was to invoice him for the Saturn V rocket he’d be riding, at $185million.
As humans we love myths, and the moon has been at the centre of them since pre-history and the first of our ancestors to look up and see a light in the darkness. The people who first set foot on it, and the teams that put them there, were mould-breaking champions who beat their own fear and self-doubt like a gong.
Only 12 people, all men, have ever walked on the moon and they all did it between 1969 and 1972. After that, NASA’s funding was slashed and, as the writer Andrew Smith explores in his incredible book Moondust, each of the moonwalkers dealt with their experiences in wildly different ways. Interviewing the surviving returners he finds that some turned to art or deep science while others fell in with new age mystics. Aldrin, for his part, fell to earth hard. After his return he sank into depression. Who could blame him? When you’ve walked on the moon, it’s tough to find an encore.
It must be tough, too, to deal with that most profound of shifts in perspective. The photographs alone that NASA brought back from the moon flights changed the way we see ourselves on Earth. Space was no longer just the heavens above but now also a backdrop against which the Earth hung like a jewel. We saw ourselves for the first time framed as a flash of life in the otherwise haunting emptiness of the abyss. Neil Armstrong once said that while on the moon he realised he could blot out the whole of the Earth with his thumb. Asked if that made him feel really big, he replied: “No, it made me feel really, really small.”
Norman Mailer called the Apollo missions a “surreal adventure” and he was right. They are rendered especially surreal by the fact space exploration has become simultaneously futuristic and retro.
Since the Seventies we’ve slowly abandoned manned space travel because it’s expensive, difficult and the benefits are not easily seen. Many critics have questioned what the use of travelling to the Moon or to Mars are when we already know that they’re deserted, rockywastelands. When the Montgolfier brothers achieved the first manned flight in history in 1783, Benjamin Franklin is said to have been asked what he thought the use of flying about in the air could possibly be. He replied: “Sir, what’s the use of a newborn baby?”
Just as Aldrin struggled to find an encore for the moon landing, so did the rest of the planet. That’s why his continued dedication to the “imperative to explore” is something that can inspire of all. When he talks of colonising Mars, he’s echoing every villager before him who wanted to know what was over that mountain range or across that ocean. The journey that takes us away from home and into the unknown is as much an existential expedition as it is scientific.
The great and wise astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said that we seek to explore space because “some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” As yet we’ve known life on just a pair of corresponding rocks. We’ve barely dipped a toe into the wider universe, but it was our instinct to explore and understand that brought us crawling out of the primordial slime in the first place. We can’t stop here.
It takes a certain kind of mind to calmly strap yourself to the top of a Saturn V rocket pointed at the moon. Despite being sat 300ft in the air and riding 2,000 tons of rocket fuel, guided by significantly less computing power than’s found in the average iPhone, at the moment Apollo 11 launched Buzz Aldrin’s pulse was just 110 bpm, the lowest of any of the Apollo astronauts. Aldrin is as cool as they come.
As he’ll describe in startling detail, Aldrin’s stoicism was put to the test during Apollo 11’s nervy landing and return. However, from the moment he joined mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969 his place in history as one of humanity’s greatest pioneers was assured.
Now aged 82, Aldrin remains a fierce advocate for the manned exploration of space. He’s designed the innovative “Aldrin Cycler”, which he argues could help transport people and supplies to Mars, and he’s now working with Lynx on their campaign to send 22 competition winners into space.
When we meet at the Empire Hotel in New York, he’s dressed casually in a silver sports jacket bearing the Apollo 11 insignia and his own “Buzz Aldrin” patches. Around his right wrist he wears a Tibetan bracelet of clear skulls, while on his left he wears a distinctive watch with two faces on one band. Settling down in the corner of his suite, the legendary astronaut shares his thoughts on moonwalking, colonising other planets and the time he saved his life with a felt-tip pen.
GQ: What’s the secret to moonwalking?
Buzz Aldrin: Walking around on the moon was significantly easier than we’d thought it would be. There weren’t any balance problems so you weren’t tumbling over. I think in general, looking back on it, you could make sense of it: if you put one foot down and then another, the first foot down would have a little error that you could fix with the second one and then push off. Then you’d coast.
Do-doo. Do-doo. Do-doo. Sort of like a horse when it’s going around a circle. That seemed to be the natural rhythm, rather than bouncinglike a kangaroo. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Is it true that the first music heard on the lunar surface was when you played Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me To The Moon’?
No, I don’t remember that. We could have received it. Sometimes Mission Control played some music as a wake-up call, but I don’t remember what it was! We only had one sleep and one wake-up while we were on the moon.
You were a fan of Sinatra’s though, did you ever meet him?
I did, but it was just like meeting any other celebrity entertainer. When I met him and other people, usually they were on the downside of their career. They’d already contributed, but they were still held in esteem. As most people are even as they deal with diminishing productivity. I was a fan of his and Karen Carpenter. I like her way of projecting her voice. It’s as identifiable as Frank Sinatra’s voice is.
At the end of your time on the surface of the moon, as you prepared to launch off in the lunarmodule, you realised that the ignition system was broken. This could have left you stranded, but you managed to fix it by jamming a pen into the circuit. What went through your mind in those moments?
We discovered it shortly after we came back in, as we prepared to make an effort to sleep. I said to Neil that my preference would be the floor. He sat on the cover of the engine and could lean back.
The telescope for making platform alignments was visible to him, and of course the view of the Earth kept him awake! Meanwhile, I observed this broken circuit breaker and reported it to Mission Control. We hoped they’d handle the problem. We found that it was a critical engine-arm circuit breaker. There was a point in our launch checklist when that had to be engaged to supply electricity to turn on the engine. There was an uncertainty as to whether any effort to push that in would be successful and then whether it would stay in or pop out again. Obviously there’s electrical contacts in there, which I didn’t know that much about! It seemed to me though that if we had a choice of objects to push it in, a metal instrument was probably not too good! Equally, a little finger might get burned.
Fortunately, there was a felt-tip pen. The public relations guyback in Houston had a list of things that were on board. The only pen that he had listed on board was a mechanical pen. He thought we’d used that pen, so some news releases carried the name of that particular Fisher zero-gravity pen – a pressurised one that pushes the ink out whether it was this way, that way, or underwater. The problem was, that was metal. I found my own plastic felt-tip was much more distinct for recording numbers. That was the one I used and that was what I pushed it in with. It stayed in, and I made sure to push it in hours before lift-off so we knew that it would actually stay in!
What advice do you have for the Lynx competition winners who will be travelling into space?
My advice to everyone would be to pay attention to the instructions and try to win the prize. As you go through the training, hopefully you’ll be selected as one of the 22 winners in this programme. Make sure you absorb what the information is that you’re give. When you’re in a spacecraft, you need to know what things you can touch and what things you shouldn’t touch! This is the opportunity of a lifetime, so also think about how you can remember what happens: what you can record and when you can take pictures.
You’re an advocate of sending a manned mission to Mars.What do you say to those people who arguethat it’s too expensive?
Let’s make it cheaper! Let’s do it more efficiently. Let’s not spend resources that we don’t need to be sending astronauts back to the moon. Let’s not spend expensive resources on bringing people who have reached Mars back again. Prepare them to become a growing colony. With teamwork, experience and sharing I think that the desire to go back to your family, for me, doesn’t prove to be that important. The service to humanity will be appreciated by history.
The decision to go to the moon is now appreciated and associated with President Kennedy’s speech, but somebody else had told him it was a good idea. It turned out to be a good commitment, but it was a uniquesituation. I didn’t realise how unique it was at the time.
For us it just unfolded and seemed like a good thing to do. Really, it was also to do with the Cold War situation, the motivation of technical achievement and the desire to assure the people of their security during the threatened periods of that war.
Were there funny moments on Apollo 11?
Well, I don’t think I was a source of levity. Mike Collins called Neil the “Tsar” of the group – not that there were dictatorial commands being given, but it was his way of acknowledging the chain of command.
Why do you wear two watch faces on one band?
So if one stops, I got the other one! No, there’s a practical reason. You see I’m very proud that in 1970 I suggested to a watch company that normally on a watch when you pull out the stem the second handstops and you have to move the minute hand around once to get the hour hand to move. I said to the watch company: “You don’t want to stop the second hand, and you don’t want to forget where the minute hand is. Otherwise you’ll lose the accuracy.” I said they should have two hour hands, one of which stays tied to the minute hand and the other which moves just one hour at a time.
If you screw that up, you can look down here at the second face. That’s why you have two hour hands – one of them is home time, and the other local time. I didn’t get paid anything for that invention! I showed it to them and they said “Oh, isn’t that something!” But this two on one strap is one-of-a-kind. They’re both Omega, one is the watch they use on the Space Station.
Did seeing the Earth from the surface of the Moon change your perspective on life?
No. Any observations from the Moon or a sense of realising this or that about the greater meaning of things wasn’t as influential for me as the experience of coming back and dealing with being a person who’s been to the Moon. That put me in a situation with other human beings where I had torespond to instructions about what I was “supposed” to do as an astronaut who’s been to the moon. It was difficult to deal with the opportunities, or avoid certain opportunities, that come along as the result of what happens when you change from the position of being an active astronaut. All three of us decided that after being on the first landing, even though Mike didn’t land, we decided that we didn’t want to stay in the rotation but would depart active crew positions. My choice was to return to the service that I came from. I was the first Navy, Marine or Air Force person who had been an astronaut to return back to the Air Force. I had certain expectations about what would be a reasonable and desirable position to be assigned to after my years of service. That didn’t turn out to be the case. It began a period in my life of things not going quite as right as they had up to that point.