It took some major effort, but Peter found someone who has traveled where he hasn’t!
Astronaut and American hero Buzz Aldrin chatted one on one with Peter to share details of his new book, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.
Read on for behind-the-scenes details of the moon landing, Aldrin’s personal battles with depression and alcoholism, and his thoughts on America’s space program today.
Peter Greenberg: The title of your new book, Magnificent Desolation, comes from a quote that you gave when you were on the moon. “Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation.”
Buzz Aldrin: Yes. That came just a few seconds after coming down the ladder on the moon.
PG: Of course, there have been items in the news recently saying that because of budget problems, we may have to lay off thousands of people from NASA and we may not get back to the moon. Did you ever think in 1969 that it would be 40 years at least until we even attempt to go back?
BA: Well, it’s going to be 50 years if we try real hard and spend a lot of money, and I don’t think we’re going to do that. I thought we were looking for jobs in this country, and here we are laying off high-tech people that we need.
We’ve got stimulus money being thrown out all over the place. We have the potential of going down in history as the nation whose leader chartered a course over the next 20-25 years for creatures from Earth to begin to settle permanently on another planet in our solar system. That leader will go down in history in something miraculous. I can’t understand why they can’t quite stretch their minds a little bit to see the potential of what we have within our grasp. We’ve allowed quite a few things to slip through our grasp.
We’ll have flown the shuttle for 30 years on 130 missions arriving down below the fiery atmosphere at mach 1, and we’ve maneuvered into a precision landing every time. Yet now we’re going to have to go to our space station with the Russian capsule for four or five years, and then the only thing we’re going to have is capsules in the ocean for the next 20 years. I wouldn’t want to be the president who chartered the course in that direction.
PG: I agree with you. If you go back and look at what was going on this country in the 1950s with Sputnik, and the monkey and Alan Shepard, part of what drove that so much and made it a national priority was the space race with the Soviets.
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BA: Yes, that was a pioneering period. It was a demonstration to our people and to their people that we could respond with considerable success if we challenged ourselves. It was a lesson we taught ourselves because we needed to develop those aerospace technologies to meet the challenge that was coming from the Soviet Union.
When we won that race, a number of years later our president said, “I think we’ve been living with this mutually assured destruction for too long. I think we could build a defense against ballistic missiles.” And he proposed that to Gorbachev. The press trivialized this by calling it “Star Wars.” It wasn’t Star Wars, and it wasn’t anything childish to be laughed at. It was a distinct challenge, and Gorbachev realized the Soviet Union couldn’t match the might of the United States. So the Cold War ended, and it did because of the audacity of a president who took up the challenge and said we were going to do something that was seemingly impossible.
PG: With the disintegration of the Cold War, would you parallel that with the disintegration of the space program and lack of competitiveness?
BA: I don’t think the Cold War was particularly all over. There happens to be a mission in design right now for a possible launch in October, called Phobos-Grunt. Phobos is the moon of Mars, and “grunt” is Russian for “soil.”
It’s a very ambitious soil sample return mission. It has a Chinese halo satellite on board it, and it’s been negotiated with the French to share the soil samples from this moon of Mars, in exchange for the deep space tracking that the French can do for the Russians.
And we just sit idly by and chart a course for an expensive way to put our astronaut back on the moon 50 years after we did that in the last century. I don’t quite understand the logic of looking for leadership in the world. Or is it the fact that we don’t want leadership in the world?
PG: We talk about time travel, but this sounds to me like time lag in the worst way.
BA: We’re in the position we’re in because of a number of mistakes by a number of people along the way. The shuttle did not live up to expectations; neither did the space station. It’s probably a good thing that we charted a course back to exploration. At the beginning of an election year in 2004, it was implemented incorrectly, and that’s why it’s cost so much.
Now, I didn’t outline all these things in my book, Magnificent Desolation, but I would like to put it in an epilogue. The words “magnificent desolation” were ones that I uttered when I was on the moon. They mean the magnificence of the human race being able to descend from the trees, and build engines and rolling on wheels with gasoline, propellers and wings, rockets and spacecraft, and we put people on the moon. What a testament to the advancement and achievements of the human race.
But then we look out on the scene that Neil and I saw, and it was so lifeless. It hadn’t changed in hundreds of thousands of years: two weeks of daylight, two weeks of darkness, the dust layer gradually accumulating a little bit more every 10 years or so, impacts that melt the soil. It’s just an odd location, totally lifeless. Its about as desolate as you can imagine.
Those worlds “magnificent desolation” are sort of a metaphor for my own life—with depression and alcoholism descended into a kind of a desolate quagmire of not knowing where I was going. After 31 years of sobriety, I’m at a point of entertaining rather magnificent challenges for our nation, for the world. I’m doing that with a very clear mind; I’m not immune from depression or alcoholism, but I pay very close attention to my recovery.
PG: One last question: You spent 21 hours on the lunar surface and you returned with 46 pounds of moon rocks. Do you have any rocks?
BA: It was only two and a half hours and it didn’t give us enough time to conceal things!
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