EDITOR’S NOTE: The following Q&A with astronaut Buzz Aldrin originally published on April 7th, 2016. We are reprising it today commemorate the 50th anniversary of humankind walking on the moon.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA How many people get to meet their childhood heroes? Not many. But journalists, if they play their cards right, get to do it all the time. At least I have: Tom Waits, John Cale, Shatner, Brian Wilson, Captain Kangaroo. Add to the list Apollo 11 astronaut/boyhood hero Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon (and the first to take a pee on it). It’s hard understand now but growing up in the early 70’s, astronauts were like Olympian Gods who performed superhuman feats. And that’s what putting a man on the moon was: a superhuman feat. It proved this: we have evolved from thoughtless single-celled creatures wiggling in the primordial ooze to upright walking thinkers able to conceptualize and execute the catapulting of three men in a tin can to the moon and back without them dying too much. That is, if you will pardon my French, fucking progress. At the same time it is a depressing reminder of just how far this country has fallen — we used to put men on the moon, now we Donald Trump. Anyway, Buzz recently published a book called No Dream Is Too High. It was an honor and a pleasure to speak with Buzz, who turned 86 back in January, even if he often orbited around my questions without ever really coming in for a landing.
DISCUSSED: How they almost died at least four different times, how they almost ran out of fuel, how they almost crash landed on the moon’s surface, how, in the course of getting in and out of the Lunar Lander in big bulky spacesuits and 360 pound backpacks, he accidentally broke off the ignition switch that fired up the engines to get them back home and had to improvise with a ballpoint pen, how he came up with faster way to get to Mars, why he wants us to colonize the Red Planet and become a “two-planet species”; why he punched out obnoxious loon/moon-landing-was-a-hoax conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel back in 2002 on camera and why nobody could blame him, not even the cops, how he’s not really a Republican they were just the first party to ask him to give a speech and he’s just waiting for an invite to speak from the Democrats, and how he completely dodged the question of whether or not he could or would vote for Donald Trump.
PHAWKER: Thank you for taking the time to do this. It’s a huge honor. You are a boyhood hero of mine. I grew up in the shadow of the moon landing, so I’m right at the age where I was completely fascinated by the space program, visited Cape Canaveral on vacation and wanted to be an astronaut for many years, until I realized all the math that was required. The horrors of space didn’t frighten me, but the algebra sure did.
BUZZ ALDRIN: I’ve got a couple of kids your age. It’s beginning to fade, ‘cause those that weren’t really around kind of missed an awful lot. One of my campaigns in the near term is to make the most out of what I’m terming the “Apollo Golden Legacies,” and that includes the Gemini Missions. The 45th anniversaries of Apollo missions, which will carry us into the next administration. I think we really need a resurgence of public awareness and support. I think the news of today in Brussels, may, among other immediacies, may not allow anything but a very gradual reestablishment of a space program.
PHAWKER: Let me ask you a question about the funding of space research in this country. What are your feelings about the shift towards privatizing space exploration and the gradual defunding of NASA?
BUZZ ALDRIN: The funding of a private sector is still driven a lot by what the return is gonna be, and space activities are such long term investment in the nation, in the people, and the world, and I am not sure that the private sector is willing or able to make that kind of decades long investment before seeing a profit, if ever. We need to regain the proud, inspired position of an expanding on this hallmark of humanity’s progress by occupying and growing to a settlement colony on another planet in the solar system.
PHAWKER: Explain the premise of your new book for the readers that might not be aware. You want to use the stories of your life and achievements to inspire people to maximize their own potential and accomplish their dreams. Correct?
BUZZ ALDRIN: Maybe four, five years ago, I decided it would be a good idea for the expertise and wisdom of people who experienced the growth of the space program from the beginning, to put together a think tank to look back and think of the very beginnings, and call attention to the good decisions and the not-so-good decisions that resulted in success, and not-so-successful mistakes, so that we could profit by those mistakes, and then embark on a more judiciously evaluated program. This is not to advise anybody— NASA, Congress, the President, anyone else— it’s to inform, in very simple language, the public, that its understanding and inspiration eventually would have the best determination of what our future really should be. I’m sorry that my answers are quite involved. Let me try and be briefer. That’s part of me, and part of me, like the guy who on the surface of the moon, when we received the transmission from Mission Control to Tranquility Base, “You’re cleared for lift-off,” I responded by saying, “Roger, Houston. We’re number one on the runway.” Not knowing that I was carrying out a comedian’s definition of comedy, and as I began to continue, discussions with, you know, relatively serious discussions, if there was some absurdity, that my mind encountered as I was thinking about the subject. In the periphery were lots of other alternatives, some of them sort of serious, that we would get to, but others just totally absurd. It would generate a lightheartedness and an appreciation of the seriousness of what we may be discussing. Whether it’s Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, or whether it’s somebody talking about “What do we do about the explosions in Brussels today?” I would be hard pressed to find something in the periphery that’s absurd, that would be humorous about a discussion about what we’re faced with today.
PHAWKER: I have a couple specific questions that I wanted to ask you about the moon landing. I think most people are unaware of just how dangerous it was and how many opportunities there were for it to go catastrophically wrong. One of the first things I was surprised to learn was that you moved the original landing site at the last minute, because it didn’t look as stable as you guys were hoping for. You looked for a more stable spot on the Moon’s surface to land the lunar module. But because of that, you guys were left with only twenty seconds of fuel to get back up into orbit and re-link up with the command module and go back to Earth.
BUZZ ALDRIN: Well, fighter pilots used the phrase talking to each other, “Check six.” That means to look who’s behind you, ’cause that’s the emergency that’s gonna shoot you down if you don’t keep your tail and the tail of your leader covered and protected from catastrophic events. The space craft that we flew, LEM 5 was overweight as it came out of the production line and that means more propellant. There certainly was a capability with the computer to re-designate a better landing site and as we did that, there were three options, maybe. If we were still heading for a pile of boulders around a crater, and to land short means you have to pitch up the spacecraft, and probably lose sight of where you’re going. To turn left or right in a low-gravity field meant much steeper bank and maneuvers than would be the case here on Earth with a higher gravity field. The more simple, more acceptable is to just pitch forward slightly, and fly over the undesirable area to land. That’s what we did.
At 60 seconds, a light comes on in the cockpit indicating low-level fuel. That was about the time that [astronaut] Charlie Duke [back on Earth at Mission Control] called out “60 seconds, a hundred feet,” and I remember thinking “if the engine failed now, it’s not very good.” But when we got down to 30 seconds with ten feet or less, I felt, “OK, this is gonna come out OK.” And it did. But that’s why we have an abort guidance system. We have a primary guidance abort system that can be executed right down to the point of touchdown. If that were to occur, we would then need to rendezvous with Columbia and Mike Collins. At this first landing, I felt we needed everything working for us, and so I innocently, no, unknowingly… No, I knew what I was doing. I kept the rendezvous radar powered up during the descent, so it would be available in the event that we needed it. However, that is what caused the program alarms, and us scurrying around mission control to come up with the answer that that was not something that should cause us to abort. Those continued upon, and thanks to the sharpness of the people in mission control, who incidentally had been observing a similar, not exactly the same, but a similar failure in another simulated training flight sometime before our mission left. So, there was an awareness, however, due to the situation, and it’s either plus or minus, our crew did not know, [Apollo 11 Commander] Neil [Armstrong] and I did not know of this particular option or failure that could occur, or maybe not for the same exact reason. OK, I’m gonna try and be much briefer.
PHAWKER: Well, let me finish up that question I was asking you: You guys needed to make sure that you landed on the Moon at a very stable spot that was flat. It was very important that the lunar module be standing completely upright, because if it was pitched at an angle, you would be thrown off into the wrong trajectory, and you wouldn’t be able to…
BUZZ ALDRIN: No, the abort guidance and the primary guidance would know what the altitude was from the alignment prior to landing, and one of the first things we did was to re-align the platform. Both the abort guidance system and the primary knew that. But there was still a probability that we might have to launch at the end of two hours, when [astronaut] Mike Collins [who was orbiting the Moon in the Command Module while Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the Moon] came around again. Jack Schmitt and I, years before, had come to the conclusion that one of the first things a crew should do after they land, and things look fine inside the cockpit, we should prepare in the checklist just counting down to departure at the end of two hours, as a reinforcement of the training that we hadn’t had, just doing over but not executing a lift-off. We thought that was a very prudent thing to do, but I believe turned out, that was not something that was followed on subsequent flights. I just can’t help but believe that when one person thinks they have a good idea, that it sort of rises in other people. Well, gee, thats not such a good idea after all. I mean, who is this person that thinks they know what we should do? That’s the independence of human beings.
PHAWKER: There was another moment there when things could’ve gone catastrophically wrong. When you guys got back into the lunar module after having walked on the Moon for a while, in the process of getting in and out of the lunar module in your big, bulky spacesuits, somebody broke the ignition switch off. That’s basically the switch that enables you to get back to Earth. Somebody came up with the idea of improvising, basically jamming a pen in there, and that was used to turn on the ignition switch, correct?
BUZZ ALDRIN: Well, because my little finger might have received a shock. Looking back on it, even a metal ballpoint pen would’ve accomplished the job, and probably my little finger, or anything else, would have done the same thing given the way that the circuits behind the broken-off circuit breaker were designed. There were many ways of fixing that. It just caused a sleepless night for people back at mission control. Looking back at it, it’s kind of interesting to note that two guys on the moon, with some real questionable ability to return back to Earth, had no trouble going to sleep.
PHAWKER: One of the things that you talk about in the book is — and you tell this story sort of in inspirational tale about overcoming negative thinking — that for many years, it bothered you that you weren’t the first man to step onto the moon, that you were the second man. I know that with test pilots and astronauts, being the first everything— the first explorer, the first man to do this, the first man to do that— is such a big deal. But really, I think if you step back — and probably this is the way that you look at it now — it wasn’t so much that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon and you were the second, the way to look at it was that you and Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the Moon. And it was unbelievable, and it still remains an unbelievable accomplishment. Still the pinnacle achievement of humankind.
BUZZ ALDRIN: I hope you’re alive in 50 years when we put men on Mars — you may be getting pretty grey and feeble. In my predictions of what I would hope would unfold, the Mars landing and the permanence [of the mission], and I think that we need to convince more people to accept that it will be, without a doubt, the most importantly historic action by humans on this planet.
PHAWKER: Forty thousand people have signed up for a one-way trip to Mars. I’m wondering if back in 1967, 1968, if the trip to the Moon was a one-way trip, would you still have signed up? Would it have still been worth it?
BUZZ ALDRIN: I don’t think we would have known the value or the impact, and certainly the ease of returning. Going to the Moon included in it, the abort potential into orbit. And then, that’s done, and another success, which is joining up with the propulsion to get back home. Returning from the Moon is much, much simpler and easier to achieve than a very risky departure from Mars, where many more expensive, complicated, time-consuming plans would have to be made in order to bring the first crew back. I kind of think about what that would mean if we planned on doing that. That would make quite a different legacy 100,000 years into the future. The caution may be justified of what could’ve been done if we had planned when things are all going right, and that’s the way we should plan, when we’re 25 years away from something. We should plan with optimism, and all-inclusiveness of the economic contributions of all the international partners. Absolutely, including a major effort to bring China into that group of international partners.
PHAWKER: I want to clarify something that I think has been misrepresented over the years, and that is the question of whether or not you guys saw a UFO. Technically, it was an unidentified flying object. But you have since clarified that what you saw was one of the panels that had detached from the spaceship, and you were seeing this off in the distance. It was misrepresented that you guys were seeing some UFO that couldn’t be explained. You wanted to clarify that it was not the case.
BUZZ ALDRIN: Absolutely. But we were smart enough to know that if we described what we saw, which was a light at some distance moving against the star background, that was obviously another object. And what could that be? And we felt very convinced, at least I did, because we’d seen the plan plotted out: the trajectory that those panels took when they were propelled by springs on release to move outward in four different directions. I think the observation that we saw that could have really excited internationally, so we decided we would just ask mission control where was the upper stage of the rocket that we separated from, and were very clearly in no hazardous position at all. We saw it, and observed it, wish we’d taken pictures of it light its engine, and thrust away from us, and any interference potential, into some solar orbit. When mission control said it was 6,000 miles away, that confirmed that it almost certainly was not what we were looking at. Certainly, there was absolutely no point in altering the trajectory to go over and look and see which one of the four panels it was. I felt that the briefing that we gave to higher management when we came back of what we saw and looked at and felt it was, we expressed that in our debriefing in quarantine to the higher management. Somehow, I felt that it was public knowledge. Obviously, it wasn’t. When I disclosed that on a more lengthy interview later with BBC, why the UFO people in the States just went crazy, accusing me of not giving them that information. Even though it was the truthful explanation that was given and the UFO people wanna blow up anything out of proportion. I had to sue somebody for erroneous attribution of Neil and I seeing some creature on the surface of the Moon. At least that gave rise to the Transformers movie about space. Blatantly violates the laws of physics and everything else, just to make something look sensational.
PHAWKER: You were talking about a space creature. You were saying that sort of jokingly. I was thinking about this. You guys weren’t a hundred percent sure that there was no life on the Moon before you guys went there, correct? There were still the possibility that some sort of life existed, that we weren’t even capable of understanding at the time. Or that that wasn’t a carbon-based life form that relied on water, things like that. There was a possibility that you could encounter some life form, even if it was just some sort of bacteria, or something like that. Correct?
BUZZ ALDRIN: [Carl] Sagan, who was a respected predictor of the future, made the observation that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Not just hearsay, or somebody’s wishful thinking. Unfortunately, that is not taken into account by those that want to get a bit of attention by claiming that something happened. That they felt they knew something that everyone else didn’t. They wanted to make sure that the world knew that. I don’t know what the motivation is for, extremely improbable, that there are no living creatures to a trillion trillion on Mars. There may be evidence that there may have been some very, very low forms of life, when millions of years ago, there were oceans on the surface of Mars, and it had a different atmosphere, and it had conditions much more conducive to what might have caused life to start here, which could have come from Mars.
Or, life on Earth maybe could have been transmitted through impacts to Mars. I don’t know, asteroids… It’s really far-fetched, but asteroids move around in space, not that many from outside of our total solar system. But that’s getting into the extremely improbable. I think we need to be aware that large objects could wipe out life here on earth. Stephen Hawking might have a valid idea in saying that humanity would be wise to have an off-Earth sample of the human race somewhere else, like Mars. When he said 200 years, I talked to him, and said we could get that in about 30 or 40 years. I had a speechwriter a while back, come up with the term of “We need to explore or expire.” I think the human race has always had a curiosity no matter at what stage, because that is just part of growing up, and learning, is to be curious. That needs to be satisfied.
PHAWKER: Two more questions and I will let you go, and thank you very much again for taking your time and answering these questions so thoughtfully and at such great length. The first one is a very short, sort of humorous thing in my estimation. Back in September of 2002, you punched out a moon landing conspiracy theorist named Bart Sibrel on camera, after he relentlessly badgered you and harassed you. I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed you for throwing a punch. I think anybody else in your shoes would have done the same. I believe that’s the reason why the police department took a look at the film footage and decided that there was no crime committed here. I would just like to say that I believe you struck a blow for a reason in an increasingly irrational world that day, and I would like to thank you for your service to your country right then and there.
BUZZ ALDRIN: I really appreciate that, and I did break the ice among some of my contemporaries, who were not always that appreciative of my outlandish proposals. That was a split-second decision, and once you do it, you can’t withdraw that. It did cost $10,000 to get the charge totally dismissed. But that’s just an example of our system of protecting people’s rights. I knew that he was really pestering other people, and had done that once before, in an outlandish way. I knew who he was and just wasn’t gonna buy into his request on-camera. That’s the big thing he was interested in. As soon as I impulsively hit him — and he was way over six feet tall — he immediately said turned to teh camera man and said “Hey, did you get that!? Did you get that!?”
PHAWKER: Sure, and he was trying to goad you into that sort of a response, judging by the footage. Apparently, you knocked some sense into him when you hit him in the face. My understanding is that he later apologized to you. Is that true?
PHAWKER: Good to know.
PHAWKER: You’re an active member of the Republican party. You do fundraisers, helping congressional candidates, etcetera. I’m curious what you make of the current presidential race, and are you a Trump supporter, or no?
BUZZ ALDRIN: Your assumptions are wrong. I had to decide as soon as I felt that I had thoughts, ideas that were useful, that the ultimate decisions came from whoever was in The White House. I had to be independent. I had to work closely, and cultivate relationships with the individuals leading up to the president’s science adviser and security council people. I had to be friendly and on formative terms, ’cause I could learn some things from them, and they could learn some things from me. However I might feel about things, I have to be extremely protective of my ability to be able to work closely with whoever wins different elections. That includes the state of Florida that I’m now in, and that’s not why I left California, even though I did pay taxes to the Brown dynasty, including [Governor Jerry Brown, aka] Moonbeam. You see what I mean by absurd observations that get a chuckle out of somebody?
PHAWKER: Sure, sure. You’re saying that you’re non-partisan? That you need to remain neutral. That you have a higher mission, and it’s about advancing science and the cause of space exploration. That you’re not interested in getting partisan politics, in picking sides?
BUZZ ALDRIN: I was asked to speak before CPAC, the conservative public affairs or political action committee, and my intention was to do exactly the same thing to the Democrat candidates. It hasn’t arisen quite as opportunistic to be able to do that. But I think having put together that speech, which is available on my website, for any and all to appreciate. It was a motivational speech for the next president, and those who might be working with him. It didn’t disclose everything. There are a few things in my head that I think might be patentable.
PHAWKER: You mentioned the Mars cycler. You’ve come up with a shorter trajectory for getting to Mars and back, is that correct? I read somewhere that you came up with a way that it would only take five-and-a-half months to get to Mars. Is that correct?
BUZZ ALDRIN: That’s true, but you have to repeat the cycle in 26 months. So if it takes five months to get to Mars from Earth, it has to take 21 months to get back. So that means you go by Mars at a pretty high velocity. Since the opposite is possible in orbital dynamics, if you use that to get back in five months, it’s a very high-speed intercept, and very, very fuel-consuming. I’m still investigating even more ambitious plans which would have every 26 months an inbound and an outbound cycler swinging by Earth, heading to or from Mars. That’s a scientific, or an engineering availability. Whether you use those availabilities or not, at least they serve a significant purpose. Maybe not in the immediate future, but certainly later on. I guess I assume that we will take advantage of people who will leave Earth. Certainly Elon Musk believes that, that we’ll get to Mars and then stay there. So I can make the observation that nuclear propulsion, and other not available and maybe far-out ideas, where we could get there in three weeks. My observation to that is, if you’re gonna spend the rest of your life on Mars, why do you care that much how long it takes you to get there?