“Magnificent Desolation” — An Interview With Buzz Aldrin


I published this interview with Buzz Aldrin seven years ago for a NASA Web site that no longer exists. Since the agency is no longer using it, I figured the 42nd anniversary of the first manned moon landing would be a good opportunity to post it here.

Buzz Aldrin was the Lunar Module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, during which he and commander Neil Armstrong became the first humans to land on the Moon.

David Hitt: Dr. Aldrin, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today … We have just a few questions about your involvement in Apollo. As we prepare to mark the 35th anniversary of the first Moon landing, what do you believe is the most important legacy of Apollo 11?

Buzz Aldrin: Well, I think there are many legacies. It clearly fulfilled a dream of many people over the centuries. It was a response, clearly, to a cold war environment of Soviet actions in space following Sputnik. I think as a legacy it has inspired people the world around that remember where they were when that event happened. And that, in a way, gives testimony to the importance of the legacy.

Hitt: The words that you spoke after stepping onto the Moon—“Magnificent Desolation”—have become probably the most famous description of the lunar surface. Tell us a little more about what it was like walking on another world.

Aldrin: My sort of spontaneous words, “Magnificent Desolation,” were a contrast really of the magnificence that I felt represented the achievement of so many people, and yet the desolation of what the destination was that we had sought out. Walking on the surface of the Moon was really a lot easier perhaps than we had even been led to believe. The horizon clearly curved away in that rather smooth part of the Moon chosen for our landing site for Apollo 11. The sky was black as could be—crystal clear visibility with no air. The backpack caused us to lean forward a bit. But, clearly, moving was like in slow motion because of the restrictions of the suit. Walking on another world, knowing that you’re more distant than two people have ever been before, and yet, at that time, more people back home were witnessing what we were doing. That was quite an ironic situation, an unusual one. And, it occurred to me that this was, indeed, unique in the history of travel.

Hitt: Alright. Thank you for sharing that. Through your numerous public appearances, your BuzzAldrin.com Web site, your many books, including an upcoming children’s book, you’re an outspoken advocate for space exploration. What is the most important message you want to share with the world today?

Aldrin: I think with the world today, the most important message might be the plaque that we left on the Moon that said, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969.” And, the most important part is, “We came in peace for all mankind.” The world is in turmoil today, and I think the efforts that we put forth are an inspiration to those who seek freedom in the world, that this is an example of what that freedom can bring. Space travel is something that is now reserved for only those very specially selected people, but I think there’s an inspiration involved also that one day in the not-too-distant future, many other people, not specialists in astronaut or cosmonaut activities, but more and more of the ordinary common private citizen, may one day have the opportunity to experience, perhaps not landing on the Moon, perhaps not reaching the Moon for a good while, but attaining not just suborbital flight, but flight into orbit around the Earth.

Hitt: Today, after more than 30 years, there is serious talk about returning to the Moon and exploring the solar system. What do you believe should be the goals of space exploration today?

Aldrin: Well, clearly today, I think the goals must be affordable. They must be sustainable through many different administrations. So, we need a bipartisan approach that inspires the people. And, through the people of our country and of the world, it motivates the leaders and the people allocating the funds, in our case, the congress, to be able to ensure the continuity of funding support for NASA and the private sector. But, we need a sustaining leadership in the executive branch of the government. The goals, clearly, must be attainable, and they must be evolutionary. I think there are several steps involved in reaching the Moon. We need to chart out the potential landing sites by robotic spacecraft. We need to decide what is the best selection of launch vehicles to launch the exploration vehicle and the landers, that they can evolve into maximizing the potential support for journeying beyond the Moon, perhaps visiting the asteroids on the way to the moons of Mars, then supporting landings on Mars itself. All of this should be viewed with an objective of accepting the objective of permanent occupancy on Mars, rather than just several expeditions that could be postponed in a discontinuous way. We need to have a growing evolutionary commitment that doesn’t turn on and off the support for space.

Hitt: Thank you. The students of today will be the explorers that will bring that future about. What advice would you have for children in school today?

Aldrin: I guess the students of today need to have an open mind, explore many avenues of career choices, pay attention to the working tools that might be needed if the student aspires to a career supporting space activities or actually participating in them themselves. They need to be operators, they need to be communicators, have a significant individual background. And for longer and longer duration spaceflights, they need to develop the skills of compatibility with the close quarters that would be required for their fellow travelers. Not an easy task, but an inspiring one.

Hitt: For you, what was the most exciting part of the experience of flying in space?

Aldrin: Maybe that fits into three categories, the experience of flying in space. One is the physical sensations, and the observations. And, I guess the third is that your life is different. You are now looked upon as an individual who has been to unusual places. And, this gives you a status in the eyes of your fellow citizens. So, there’s the visual scenery from space, the fantastic view, there’s the sensation physically of floating in zero-gravity, and, then, there is the lifetime experience of sharing those wonderful opportunities to fellow human beings.

Hitt: Although your last spaceflight was 35 years ago, you’ve been very involved in space exploration ever since. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing today.

Aldrin: I’m involved in a number of things moving toward, let’s say, technical contributions. I’ve formed a rocket company for reusable rockets, demonstrating what NASA and the Air Force could use in small reusable rockets, progressing to boosters of larger and larger size. This is just a booster that gets the launch vehicle to Mach 3, 3 and a half, and then the booster glides back, or Mach 6, part of the way up into space, and the booster then flies back. We also have an expertise in crew modules, safe crew modules that can be matched with appropriate launch vehicles, to carry out flights beyond low Earth orbit, to be able to join up with landers and support missions to the Moon and beyond. That’s part of the technical contributions. The other contributions, perhaps, are in the more non-profit, the inspirational, and they come under the category of my Share Space Foundation. The objective is to share space with as many people as possible, so that there’s an increasing commercial return from spaceflight and an inspirational aspect for those who are afforded the opportunity to share in space. I’m organizing global space travelers, those individuals who are non-professional astronauts and cosmonauts, who have had the opportunity to reach orbital flight, either in the Space Shuttle or with the Russians. Then, there’s suborbital space travelers that would also be a part of this group. These role models, global space travelers, can inspire adventure travel, space camps, and perhaps eventually space scout type organizations, not just nationally, but internationally. Space camps are a part of this, but I think perhaps more important is to try and look at how the exploration missions can also be augmented by similar applications of those launch vehicles and crew modules so that adventure travel can take place with minor modifications of the launch vehicles and crew modules that are needed for exploration. Otherwise, adventure travel would be far, far too expensive. But, we need a partnership between the government civil space exploration needs and the commercial private sector human space travel objectives.

Hitt: Dr. Aldrin, it has been an honor and a pleasure talking to you today, and we appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

Aldrin: Thank you. I hope this helps. It’s an interesting prelude to the 35th anniversary of that wonderful opportunity that three of us had on Apollo 11 to carry out the first lunar landing.

Biographical Data

Hometown: Montclair, New Jersey
Born: January 20, 1930
Education: Bachelor of Science degree from United States Military Academy at West Point, Doctorate of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Spaceflight Experience:
Pilot, Gemini 12—Aldrin established a new space walk duration record on this 1966 flight.
Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 11—Aldrin and Armstrong became the first men to walk on the Moon during this 1969 mission.

For more information about Buzz Aldrin, visit his NASA biography at http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/bios/htmlbios/aldrin-b.html or his official Web site at http://www.buzzaldrin.com

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