Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin: out of this world

Apollo 11 was one of the great voyages of exploration of the 20th century. It was also one of the greatest collaborative feats of engineering coordination. E&T speaks with Buzz Aldrin about how the project got off the ground.

On 20 July 1969, when the first men stepped on the Moon, mankind had finally achieved its ambition of reaching another celestial body. "Mr Armstrong and his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. of the Air Force", as the New York Times of the day described them, had managed to bring their ship to rest on a level, rock-strewn plain near the south western shore of the arid Sea of Tranquility.

It was one of the great human stories of the 20th century, a measure of how far we had come. But it was also a technical story; a story of how computer-coordinated re-entry and rendezvous had made space travel and a walk on the Moon possible.

It's now 40 years since Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin made history and, although NASA and other bodies have since made great strides in space exploration, there seems to a lack of political will to get back out into space. Although we regularly go into Earth's orbit, many, including Aldrin, believe that the real mission before us is today is to find a way to get men on Mars.

As a fighter pilot serving in Korea, and with a career in the military, Aldrin was an all-American hero even before becoming an astronaut. By the time he'd been into space with the Gemini programme and then actually set foot on the Moon, he was seen by the world as superman. But despite the universal adulation, Aldrin was a troubled man.

While many experience a 'mid-life crisis', Aldrin went into meltdown. Today we tend to think of what happened to him as a combination of ill health and bad luck. But in the 1970s the military wouldn't tolerate mental illness such as depression, and to admit to being a sufferer meant the end of any further career development. Moreover, Aldrin was what we now call a 'high-functioning alcoholic', meaning that, while he was locked in combat with alcohol, he could (and did) at least attempt to keep his career on track with a degree of success.

Unfortunately, the problem for Aldrin was that he wasn't able to star in a career befitting a moonwalker and, as his new book 'Magnificent Desolation' explains, back then merely being a celebrity didn't pay the bills. He was dogged by 'status versus income disequilibrium syndrome': while he was invited to the most elevated of social occasions that America could offer, by day he was reduced to selling used cars.

Things started to look up when, in his fifties, he married banking heiress Lois Driggs Cannon. This turn of events provided him with the opportunity to clean up his act, and he has now been sober for three decades. But it wasn't all plain sailing, and the 1990s recession left the couple in financial trouble.

Resolved to work his way out of this newfound poverty, Aldrin became a 'freelance astronaut', and ever since he has devoted his life to touring the world advising governments, the aerospace industry and the public on what is needed to get space exploration moving again. Outspoken, opinionated and sometimes a thorn in the side of the establishment, Aldrin is renowned for talking to those who will listen - and especially about technology.

E&T: Apollo 11 has been called one of the greatest collaborative ventures of the 20th century. Do you think that this is true and can you describe, 40 years on, the sheer scale of the technical coordination required to land a craft on the Moon and bring it home to Earth?

Buzz Aldrin: It certainly was a cardinal event. Apollo 11 will probably go down in history as one of the major responses of two nations facing each other with threatening technologies - sometimes called mutually assured destruction. It was also our response to the apparent superiority of the Russians in putting objects into space before we could. Both nations gave assurances to each other that it wasn't going to be just dogs and monkeys, but it was also going to be humans. And in the case of the United States, it was going to be very out in the open. I think the Russians responded to that by realising that they needed to be more open with what they were doing. Even though they launched and recovered well inside their boundaries and didn't necessarily need to expose a lot of the technology, they became more open about what they were doing.

In the US we were faced with the question of who was going to carry this out, and the Navy's Vanguard mission was chosen. When this didn't succeed - the Atlas missiles were blowing up on the launch pad - the army then brought in its Explorer satellite programme and matched what the Russians had done with Sputnik. Then it became clear that humans were going into space and it also became clear that we weren't progressing with Atlas as we had hoped. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin shocked the world by becoming the first man in space and the best response we had - less than a month later - was a sub orbital flight.

But shortly after that I guess the world was surprised by President John F Kennedy's announcement about going to the Moon.

E&T: Did you have any sense that the technology was ready for this, or did you feel it was too ambitious?

Aldrin: There was still a long way to go with the not-so-successful launches of the Atlas and other rockets. But I think we charted a course at that time. As I reflect back on it from where we are now, we had two features that assisted with the transition from not having a space programme to reaching the Moon - flexibility and continuity. When the President said we were going to the Moon, the air force had already been studying missions to the Moon - including manned flight - so it wasn't a totally unexplored area. And we had a unity of purpose that was missing in the Soviet Union. 

The Russians at the time really had two space programmes competing with each other. Sometimes it's a good idea to have alternate ways of accomplishing something. But when we said we were going to the Moon we also had a Mercury programme and an Apollo programme, and we realised we couldn't stretch one until the other started flying. And so we filled the gap and retained continuity between the two with the very ambitious and successful Gemini programme that accomplished long-duration flight, computer-controlled re-entry, space walking and rendezvous.

E&T: It's passed into urban legend that there is more computing power on your mobile phone now than there was on these missions. Is that true? How much computing power was there? What did the computers do, and how much computing power was there back at mission control?

Aldrin: (Laughs) I can't quantitatively give you the numbers, but there was no way you could possibly have had any kind of mechanical calculator and made the corrections needed to be able to get to the Moon. Our computers gave us the sophistication of the mathematical smoothing techniques for the equations of motion and the perturbations. We were able to squeeze out of limited capacity some very, very remarkable achievements. We chose to use humans to execute and aid things like re-entry, final closure breaking and docking manoeuvres. We made use of the humans there, rather than try to automate everything and I think we made wise decisions when exploring how to do these things.

E&T: How important is it to have flexibility in developing your approach to solving huge collaborative efforts such as Apollo 11?

Aldrin: We had the flexibility when the President said to go to the Moon to look at the Nova rocket that was just on paper and wouldn't be ready until 1970, as well as and two Saturn Vs that were the legacy of Werner Von Braun. But then an engineer came along and said: "wait a minute - if we optimise here and there, shed a little weight and send two more specialised spacecraft to the Moon we can make do with just one Saturn V; one will land and the other will be available to take people home that doesn't make the landing manoeuvre an operational asset". And of course now this is the obvious way of going to the Moon, instead of direct there and direct back. These were wise decisions. The Russians looked at other shortcuts that we didn't evaluate very much. We chose flexibility.

E&T: In 2004 President George W Bush announced a goal for US astronauts to return to the Moon by 2020. What are your views on that?

Aldrin: That doesn't impress me too much. Going back to the Moon 50 years after we went there in the last century, without having a clear development plan for what we were going to do - other than to say it is a rehearsal for when we go to Mars - doesn't make much sense. As a project, going to Mars is quite a bit different, much more advanced, and I think we ought to be much more about doing that.

My schedule says if we economise on certain areas and develop what we really need to develop, we can get to Mars by 2031. But we really need to get to a moon of Mars by 2025 first. And that I think we can do, but we can't do that and go to our moon as well. We should leave that to other nations and encourage them to accept our advice, consultation and assistance and let them experience the development issues associated with going to the Moon.

E&T: What are the issues politically or technically that might prevent this? Also, what you achieved 40 years ago - if you hadn't done it then, would it be possible to do it now?

Aldrin: Well sure it's possible. I'm not really in a position to weigh that personally, but I do think that some of the consolidations in the industry have restricted innovation and new ideas, and the overheads have gone up as well as other costs plus contracting. And then there are changes that mean that we're not making maximum use of what we've previously developed.

E&T: So, do you think these are potential threats to going to Mars by 2031?

Aldrin: Yes. If we continue to develop two different launch vehicles, Aries I and Aries V, we can go to Mars by a different way. But if we think we can do it by going to the Moon in 2025 it's going to take a whole lot of time to transition away from the Moon to Mars … I think in the US we have lost a tremendous investment in leadership.

E&T: In the UK it is often said that we need something or someone really inspirational to attract new talent into the science, engineering and technology sector. Can you describe what effect Apollo 11 missions and the lunar landings had on the youth of that time?

Aldrin: All sorts of people from engineers to airline pilots say it was the Apollo programme and the expansion into new and different technological adventures that inspired them. That can exist again - but I don't see it as clearly now, because a lot of things can be done by robots as they increase in capability.

E&T: What role will robots play in our efforts to get to Mars, and do you think that they will do away with the need to send humans into space?

Aldrin: We can control robots pretty well at the space station, but we need human experience. Once we factor in human experience, robots are much more effective, especially when they are using somebody else's ability to fix things and do the human housekeeping efforts as they learn how to operate in low-earth orbit. The same thing can apply to the Moon: robotic efforts can determine which development industries' products and activities can be sufficiently productive to justify the big investment in maintaining human habitation.

After we've experienced that and are in a position to expand our human habitation to fly-by comets, to station-keep with asteroids, to look at asteroids that could possibly threaten us, then we can begin to use human intelligence at a moon of Mars (much safer) to control robots on the surface in real time and assemble items necessary for occupancy on the surface. But to go direct to the surface would be a great mistake. The more prudent way is to make an incremental commitment to a pathway first that can clearly lead toward permanence at Mars and then reinforcing that commitment with resources at a later date. But not on the surface.

The great cost in sending people there is not returned if you bring them back after two, three or four trips. You need a certain critical number of people to develop the resources to become self-sustaining. Think about the pilgrims on the Mayflower who left your jolly land to come over and establish a colony here. They didn't hang around Plymouth Rock waiting for the return trip. But this an adjustment to how we think of human beings participating in space flight. They go somewhere, they do their thing, they turn around and then they come back.

E&T: Are you optimistic that this will happen?

Aldrin: I think we have to make a decision one way or another to re-evaluate the destination, and who's going to do what. Not everybody can do everything over and over again and I think co-operative ventures don't gain much by simply being a race to the end. Maybe a race to develop something better, that we can do something with, so then you decide whose rocket is better, whose spacecraft is better and you can consolidate your efforts there. We haven't got to the point where we have the luxury of dual competing efforts.

E&T: Looking back on Apollo 11, what have we learned from that great voyage of exploration 40 years ago?

Aldrin: Apollo 11's legacy is one of significant investment and pioneering effort that achieved a new degree of sophistication in leadership, technology advance and reliability that has become the pattern for how to do these things. But we need to keep doing that and we need to keep draining minds in order to keep doing new innovative things. We can't just keep recreating the same thing over and over again. But then, we don't want to terminate good operable machines like the Saturn V prematurely and venture out on something that may not live up to its expectations. There's a great temptation to claim that something can do a great deal more than it may actually do. And then we have to pay the price of increasing costs.

E&T: What do you think you'll be feeling personally on the anniversary? Apollo 11 must have dramatically changed your life?

Aldrin: For sure Apollo 11 changed my life. But each individual has their lives changed by different events. I had to turn my life around at a very crucial point of transition at the age of 45-50. What I knew about was the future of space, but not being affiliated with a big company that made it kind of difficult to do all those things. So I started projecting, talking, discussing and designing future improvements and learning. It's in my blood to want to look at better ways of doing things.

Several of us engineers were 15 years ahead in looking at reusable booster rockets, ejectable pods and spacecraft that could come back and land. But those things just didn't seem to meet the fancy of what the air force, the military or NASA wanted, but it seems to be getting a whole lot closer now. I'm just not sure that we have the right destination and I'm not sure that we have the right means of carrying it out. But there are so many political and business contractual activities, that it may seem evident that it needs reevaluation when things don't seem to be working out quite the way we hoped. There's this attitude: "Don't change what we're doing - let's keep with it, right or wrong - let's do what we said we're going to do."

E&T: How important in a project such as Apollo 11 are the qualities of leadership and the ability to work as a team? How highly do you rate these managerial skills?

Aldrin: In forming an organisation we looked around to try to find out where to get the talent we needed. Some of it came from Canada because they had some cancelled programmes. A good bit of it came from military leadership. Of course internationally we made use of some of the German technology and used a pattern of development that they seemed to be able to contribute. That worked out well. There were significant leaders in industry that banded together, and instead of trying to win all the contracts they just took what came out. There was more than enough for everyone involved. Everybody got a reasonable piece of the action, and it all came together in a very well-managed, integrated way. When it came to testing and advancing the testing so that we could progress to what we called 'all up' testing, a lot of people had to get a lot of things together at the same time.

E&T: You've got a new book out at the moment - 'Magnificent Desolation: the Long Journey Home from the Moon' - can you tell us a bit about how that came to be written?

Aldrin: One theme is the evolution of change from short-term thinking about the details of future space modifications to an even bigger picture of what is our destiny and how we should go about preserving the investments we have made. Going to the Moon was pretty much an American event. We started out the Space Station and the Space Shuttle in that direction, made it international, but not quite free and open. We need to change these things regarding the Moon and help other nations to catch up with us, while we pioneer what we are able to do in the pursuit of US leadership in the technology of aerospace that allows us to pursue science in outer space.

E&T: So you think that the future of space exploration can be a unifying thing in terms of international political harmony?

Aldrin: Certainly. It can also be an increasing irritant unless we begin to make efforts to open up and understand. We need to set a boundary for what will happen in Space, say once you get past 100km. Certain things will happen on the surface of the Earth to do with conflict, human rights, piracy and we'll need to deal with those down here. But in Space for the betterment of many, many people, we'd like not to see communications technology encroached upon. 

Additional reporting by Angela Schuster, editor of the Explorers Journal, and with thanks to the archivist of the Explorers Club, Dorothea Sartain, who made parts of this article possible.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them