Archive for the ‘Buzz Aldrin’ Category

First on the Moon, Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins

July 20, 2009

Forty years ago, the first person from this planet set foot on Earth’s satellite, the Moon. He was Neil Alden Armstrong, and with Buzz Aldrin he formed the crew of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle (Michael Collins remained in orbit about the Moon aboard Command Module Columbia). They were followed by a further six missions, one of which – Apollo 13 – did not make it to the lunar surface. On 14th December 1972, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt climbed back into the Apollo 17 LM Challenger and shortly afterwards it departed. No one has visited the Moon since.

First on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins is the definitive account of the first mission to land on the Moon. It was published immediately after the event, and was written with the assistance of Gene Farmer and Dora Jane ‘Dodie’ Hamblin, two of the Life journalists who had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families.

You would expect the most authoritative book on the Apollo 11 lunar landing to be one written by the three men who actually made the trip. But would that necessarily make it a good book? Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are, after all, astronauts and not writers – Farmer and Hamblin’s presence on the title page notwithstanding. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that First on the Moon is very good indeed. Not only because it tells the story of the mission with authority, but because it is readable, well-structured, and a fascinating read from start to finish.

The book is written in several voices – there are transcripts of the mission, some parts of which are annotated; there are passages by the three astronauts, typically in answer to questions; there are sections describing events at the homes of the astronauts as their families watch the mission on television; and there are passages more typical of a non-fiction record of Apollo 11, not all of which feature the Apollo 11 crew or their families. Together these build a mosaic, rich in detail, of what happened during the flight, for both those aboard and those who remained behind.

Having now read First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong (see here), Buzz Aldrin’s Return to Earth (see here), and Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (see here), I feel I have some idea of the character of the three astronauts – and First on the Moon does nothing to dispel the impression of them as people I had gained from those three books. Armstrong still talks like a flight manual, Aldrin is as blunt as he is in his autobiography, and Collins provides the light relief and culture. Those three books, however, do not cover Apollo 11 – surely the defining moment of their lives – in as much detail as First on the Moon.

First on the Moon also scores highly in another area. Since Farmer and Hamblin were embedded with the Apollo families, they witnessed the reactions of the wives and children to the mission. The families are certainly not ignored in First on the Moon, and they are quoted almost as extensively as the astronauts themselves. It makes for a rounded view of Apollo 11 – the three astronauts in space in their CSM, while their spouses and children watched and waited at home.

The book finishes with an excellent epilogue by Arthur C Clarke, entitled ‘Beyond Apollo’. It’s typical Clarkeian futurism, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that his optimism in many areas was unfounded. After Apollo 17, no one ever left Earth orbit again – so there are no moonbases, there have been no missions to Mars. Which is a shame: I think I would have liked the late twentieth century Clarke depicts. Those familiar with Clarke’s novels and stories may spot references to his fiction in some of the points he makes.

Of course, since First on the Moon was written by the Apollo 11 crew, with the help of Life journalists, it’s not going to be “warts and all”. It puts a positive spin on the whole endeavour, and no one comes out of it looking bad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, Apollo 11 should be celebrated. When talking to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins aboard USS Hornet after their return, President Nixon said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation”. Hyperbole aside, putting two men on the Moon was an astonishing achievement; and even more astonishing when you consider the time at which it happened, the 1960s. Most of the technology required was in its infancy then. Now, we have the science, technology and engineering to repeat the achievement, and it would not be nearly so difficult.

Even if some nation does put an astronaut on the Moon in the next twenty years, and several have declared an intent to do so, it will never be as impressive an accomplishment as Apollo 11.

There are many books available on Apollo 11 – and yet more being published this year to celebrate the its fortieth anniversary. First on the Moon not only has the advantage of being written by the crew of Apollo 11, but also having been written shortly afterward. It’s an excellent study of the mission. Highly recommended.

First on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, with Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin (1970, Little, Brown, No ISBN , 433pp + epilogue, acknowledgment and notes)

Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin

July 18, 2009

Last month, Buzz Aldrin, with Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, Talib Kweli, and Soulja Boy, recorded a hiphop single, ‘Rocket Experience’. All the proceeds from it will go to the ShareSpace Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by Aldrin. A hiphop song is perhaps an odd way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but Aldrin has been promoting space exploration since retiring from the US Air Force in 1972. He is the only one of the three Apollo 11 crew who currently engages with the public on the topic.

However, Aldrin hasn’t always been such a vocal and tireless proponent of space exploration. After Apollo 11, he returned to the US Air Force as commandant of the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California, but stayed there only a couple of years before retiring from the military. His first book, Return to Earth, covers this portion of his life.

Return to Earth opens with the Apollo 11 splashdown. Aldrin then goes on to describe the quarantine which followed – in case the astronauts had brought any “Moon germs” back to Earth – and then the subsequent world publicity tour. Aldrin holds little back. He finds the Norwegians “not at all enthusiastic”, is surprised the British don’t present the astronauts with a decoration or award, and declares the Shah of Iran’s wife the most thoughtful of the state leaders’ spouses they meet on their travels. There’s surprisingly little culture-clash, perhaps because Aldrin served in Germany with the US Air Force for three years from 1956. But there are still one or two telling incidents – such as the Apollo 11 astronauts’ dinner at 10 Downing Street, at which “the recently deposed Labour leader landed in his cups and gave a speech ripping his country’s present administration” (p 71). That would be Harold Wilson attacking Edward Heath’s government. As a Brit, this strikes me as entirely unremarkable – but not, perhaps to a US military man who must never “embarrass the Chief”, a phrase which appears several times in Rocketman, the biography of Pete Conrad (see here).

Return to Earth then leaps back to Aldrin’s childhood and his early career. Like many astronauts, he had early exposure to aircraft – nothing notable now, but it certainly was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. While his father arranged for Aldrin to attend Annapolis, the US Navy academy, Aldrin chose instead to go to West Point and then into the US Air Force. He fought in Korea, and downed two enemy MiG-15s. He then served in a variety of places, including Germany, before attending MIT to earn a doctorate in astronautics. His doctoral thesis was titled Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous, a subject he deliberately chose with an eye to becoming an astronaut. He’d already applied once, asking that the requirement for attending test pilot school be waived in his case. The request was refused.

In fact, at NASA Aldrin was sometimes known as “Dr Rendezvous” because of the work he’d done on the subject. He joined NASA in the third group of astronauts in 1963, after they’d dropped the test pilot school requirement. Initially, he was assigned as backup to Gemini 10. This meant – following the usual rotation schedule of “miss two missions, fly on the the third” – he would not actually fly until Gemini 13. But there were only twelve missions planned. But then the crew of Gemini 9, Charlie Bassett and Elliot See, died in a plane crash, and so Gemini 10 became Gemini 9A… which in turn meant Aldrin would fly on Gemini 12.

After the Gemini programme finished, Aldrin was assigned as backup on Apollo 9, which would have put him in the prime crew for Apollo 12. Then it was learnt that the Lunar Module would not be ready for the Apollo 8 flight, so that became Apollo 9, putting Aldrin as backup on what was now Apollo 8 and so prime on Apollo 11. At that point, Apollo 11 “seemed a much too optimistic candidate for the first lunar landing” (p 198). Besides, Aldrin admits several times he would sooner fly on a later mission, one which spent longer on the Moon and performed more science.

The rest, as they say, is history. On 16th July 1969, Apollo 11 launched from launch-pad 39A, and on 20th July Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in the Lunar Module Eagle. Aldrin devotes less than eight pages to the time spent on the Moon, and while he has become known for the phrase “magnificent desolation” as a description of its surface, he does fail to evoke what it was actually like to be actually there.

That is, perhaps, the major failing of Return to Earth. It is very matter-of-fact. Aldrin is honest; he pulls no punches. But writing his style is an odd mix of frankness and self-aggrandisement. He gets the details across but rarely succeeds in presenting them memorably to the reader. While his preference for facts over opinions is laudable, it does make for a dry read. This doesn’t mean he entirely avoids giving his own opinion; far from it. While at West Point, he charged another cadet with cheating, but there was not enough evidence for a court-martial. The cheating student, however, was honour-bound to confess. He failed to do so and “is now a very high ranking officer in the armed services” (p 115). Aldrin admits to feeling bitter, to having his confidence in the system severely shaken, but also realises he was guilty of “rather naïve idealism”.

Aldrin’s idealism and naivety is a common theme throughout Return to Earth. His lack of political nous at NASA nearly saw him bumped from a flight. After joining the Astronaut Corps and being sent on public engagements, he was misquoted by the press on many occasions, and admits to being very angry over it. Even after he left NASA, he tried to set up a youth congress, only for it to fail. But this did work in his favour on occasion – after rejoining the Air Force, he was assigned as commandant of the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards, where he set about changing the school’s culture to make it more open and egalitarian. He was successful.

Return to Earth is, unsurprisingly, an unflinchingly honest self-portrait. Aldrin admits to an extra-marital affair and the precariousness of his marriage; he details the mental illness he suffered which persuaded him to retire from the Air Force; and, while the word “alcoholism” is never actually used in the book, there’s certainly a great deal of drinking mentioned in its pages. The book is very informative and an excellent account of Aldrin’s early life and career. It also gives an indication of his character – its honesty alone suggests he had not, at the time of writing, lost his “rather naïve idealism”. But that’s no bad thing.

Return to Earth is perhaps not the most rivetting read about Apollo 11 that has been published, but it certainly belongs in the collection any self-respecting space enthusiast.

Return to Earth, Colonel Edwin E “Buzz” Aldrin, with Wayne Warga (1973, Random House, ISBN 0-394-48832-6, 338p)


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