For a moment, we almost believe it’s him. We’re in the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, London, for a lavish Lost in Space-themed dinner to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Omega Speedmaster watch. George Clooney and Professor Brian Cox are standing on a dais beside me. Both men are looking up. There, suspended above us, drifting weightlessly forward before taking a series of balletic tumbles through the air, is a spaceman.
A blast of bombastic music, spotlights and laser beams follow. The figure pauses, as if contemplating the void, and then disappears. A few seconds later, a space-suited Buzz Aldrin walks in beaming, visored helmet under his arm.
I’d spent the previous evening with Buzz (it’s impossible not to be on first-name terms with the second man on the moon). We met in a suite of the Langham Hotel, overlooking Broadcasting House, and he practically spluttered when I addressed him as Dr Aldrin. We spoke about his new book, about the space programme, about a life of extraordinary highs and terrible lows.
Buzz, at 87, was still sprightly and pugnacious, white-haired with a scrubby beard, his skin stretched tautly across a sharp V of cheekbones. He wore a ‘Future Martian’ T-shirt, two Omega watches (neither of them the one he wore to the moon), along with a dozen bangles and charm bracelets.
Buzz was in the UK with his girlfriend, Michelle Sucillon, who’s not only very beautiful (and 30 years younger than him), but who treated him with touching solicitude. ‘You’ve got a long time with Alex,’ she said chidingly as she left us together. ‘But that doesn’t mean you can give him those rambling answers of yours.’
Buzz’s story is a salient and a sad one. In the days before we met, I read everything he’d written about his long life – the early memoir Return to Earth, then the more recent Magnificent Desolation and the upbeat No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon.
It’s hard, looking back, not to think that going to the moon might have been the worst thing that ever happened to Buzz. He never really recovered from the experience, and has spent the rest of his life in the lee of that day, 20 July 1969. Buzz’s father, a stern, lofty, impossibly demanding figure, used to claim that his son’s post-moonwalk demons were brought about by some disease or syndrome contracted in space. In a funny way he was right.
For Buzz, the 1970s was a lost decade when he went through two marriages and unnumbered bottles of Scotch. He lost his fortune and ended up working as a (hopeless) car salesman at a Cadillac dealership. He was marginalised by Nasa and the US Air Force, shunned when he admitted the toll that depression and alcohol had taken on his life.
‘When I left Nasa and went back to the Air Force I was the first astronaut to do that,’ he told me. ‘But I didn’t really get the assignment that I wanted at the Air Force Academy. I had chosen not to be retrained as a test pilot and so they put me as commandant of the test-pilot school. Well, that didn’t sit too well, so I was uncertain of what I was going to do.’
This is one of the animating grievances of Buzz’s life – that nothing in the post-moon world ever lived up to those strange bright hours away from earth. ‘I’d been to the moon, I’d travelled around but what would I do next? So I felt discouraged, disappointed and like I wasn’t a part of it.’
Buzz’s young life, when he was Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr, named after his military father, was spent aiming skywards. His mother, Marion Moon, comes across as a kindly, distant, unhappy woman in his memoirs, she and Buzz trapped in the shadow of the severe and flight-obsessed Edwin Snr.
Buzz went to West Point military academy, joined the Air Force and became a decorated fighter pilot. He flew 66 missions in Korea, shooting down two MiGs that were on his tail. His best friend, Ed White, was a year below him at the academy. After Korea, they both went to Germany to fly in the ‘Big 22’ fighter squadron. ‘He was instrumental in my early fighter-squadron activities,’ Buzz told me.
White also led Buzz towards space flight. ‘The pattern of when he left the squadron, he went to do things and I did similar things. He told me that Nasa was going to take more astronauts and that he was going to go for it. That egged me on to follow him. Even though I wasn’t technically qualified, I thought I would apply and see what happened. He was picked, I wasn’t.’
In his early 30s, Buzz went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to write a doctoral thesis on orbital rendezvous (earning him the nickname Dr Rendezvous). The thesis is dedicated to: ‘The crew members of this country’s present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!’
In 1963, Buzz was duly selected as one of the third group of Nasa astronauts and flew in the final Gemini mission, setting the record for the longest spacewalk. He returned to earth a hero and a celebrity. He only touches on his mother’s suicide briefly in his autobiographical writings, but it has been suggested that she found her son’s sudden fame difficult to deal with. She died of an overdose of prescription pills in 1968.
We talked about another death: that of his friend Ed White, who was killed on a training exercise for Apollo 1 when he and two fellow astronauts were burnt alive inside their command module. I asked Buzz how he felt on learning that White had died and, suddenly evasive, he began to speak of the professional ramifications of his friend’s death. ‘I’d just finished my first flight and he was on the first flight of the new programme, I was on the last flight of the old programme.
‘It opened up something for me. We’d lost a crew and they had to make adjustments.’ This is something Buzz does often – goes off on tangents, falling back on familiar stories whenever the conversation strays towards the painful or intimate.
I asked Buzz about bravery. To have his best friend killed in the Apollo programme’s first iteration, and still have himself flung up into the endless emptiness of space, must have taken extraordinary guts. ‘Maybe you learn too late that you should have been afraid,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘It dawns on you, “Gee that was kind of silly,” or “Wow that was risky.” Sometimes you don’t survive those situations.’
I asked him if, during the mission to the moon, there were times when he felt fear. He shook his head. ‘It’s a place where when you go outside, you don’t close the door because it may stay shut and you can’t get it back open again,’ he said.
More than anything, he felt a strange mixture of awe and deflation when they finally arrived, summed up in that memorable phrase ‘magnificent desolation’. I asked him about these words, whether he’d rehearsed them in advance. He shook his head again. ‘Neil said he thought it [the moon] was beautiful. I didn’t think it was.
‘The achievement was certainly a magnificent accomplishment, but contrasting that with the lifelessness of what the magnificent achievement resulted in, it tones down a hooray into a qualified hooray. I think I’ve always had a tendency to look at the yin and the yang of things, and that just came out.’
There was a moment, halfway through our chat, when I began to worry about Buzz. He started talking about an advanced society giving us space-travel technology, about a distant world being destroyed, an alien race wiped out by human diseases. It was only towards the end of his digression that I realised that he was talking about the plot of his 1996 book Encounter with Tiber, co-written with science fiction novelist John Barnes.
We went on to discuss the possibility of alien life. He believes that we’re not alone, ‘but the distances are so great, the occurrence of life is so rare, we would have to detect their presence in some way. A society that is far more advanced than us would not be communicating in radio frequencies, it would use high-frequency gravity waves. Messages would go through anything that was in the way. Gravity waves move faster than the speed of light.’
I steered the discussion back to the 1970s. It wasn’t only in space travel that Buzz was a pioneer. He was open and candid about his depression at a time when few men, particularly all-action heroes like Buzz, spoke of their troubles. I asked him about the years lost to alcoholism, when he’d often stay in bed for weeks, going out only to buy booze and buckets of fried chicken.
‘It’s a situation where it’s down to the individual,’ he said. ‘The concern of what goes along with success is notoriety, and that has aspects to it that were not all pleasant to anticipate and then carry out, unless it was serving a significant purpose, and then you can adjust to it… Whatever had to be coped with was done the best I could. While we were involved in the doing, it consumed a lot of time.’
Buzz said he recognised that his battles against depression and alcohol addiction offered as much of a model to his three children as his exploits in space. ‘There was an example of dedication and achievement. Perhaps just not in the same way as serving my country.’
Now Buzz lives with Sucillon in Satellite Beach, Florida, and spends his time campaigning for greater private and government investment in space travel. He believes that the colonisation of Mars should be humanity’s central goal, and that settlements should be established of people who aren’t given the option of returning to earth.
‘I think that going to Mars and leaving again is not the right way. I’m convinced that the only purpose of going is to start to build up a settlement there. It is also the most economical way – to wait until we can do this very confidently, very completely, not real quick just to get there and come back.’
I asked him how he’d persuade people to enlist on such a dangerous voyage and got a brief glimpse into the motivation behind his own adventures – an old-fashioned sense of duty. ‘They can feel noble about it, and their time on earth will be recognised by their contribution to their country, to all of humanity, by adding to the early part of doing something.’
Let’s return to Buzz, on stage at Omega’s gala dinner, beaming alongside Clooney and Cox as he soaks up the applause. Liv Tyler is one of the first to rise to her feet, then Joely Richardson, Gemma Arterton and Ellie Goulding join her, until a whole galaxy of stars are rapturously celebrating Buzz. It’s hard to begrudge him the adulation, the financial rewards that are finally coming his way.
e’s a man at the end of a long life, a life overshadowed by its place at the heart of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. His anger at the world – he famously punched a journalist who suggested that the moon landing was a hoax – seems to have cooled somewhat since the end of his third marriage in 2011.
He still bridles if he’s asked about being the second, rather than the first, man on the moon, still seems to approach every question as a potential trap, but he’s now been sober for more than three decades.
With Mars firmly in his sights, it feels also that, late in life, he finally has a cause to embrace: leaving behind the earth that has so disappointed him and founding a new Martian world of pluck and patriotism.