Does Buzz Aldrin know something we don’t? (Aside, of course, from how to pilot a primitive lunar module onto the surface of the Moon, what the Earth looks like from 384,400km away, and the feeling of collided awe and dread that provoked his first words as he stepped down from the ladder – ‘magnificent desolation’.) I only ask because, halfway through our interview in a deathly silent suite at The Langham in Marylebone (surrounded by three PR staffers, his manager and a photographer sprawling for a better angle on the chaise-longue), Buzz glides into a confession that feels ever-so-slightly outside his traditional press release trajectory.
‘It’s taken me a long while, and I don’t know when it happened, but now I feel I’m working on something much bigger than our achievement of getting to the Moon,’ he says, glancing furtively over my shoulder towards his manager. Buzz is talking about his well-publicised aim to help the human race reach and occupy Mars – a goal he has pursued, in published books and various behind-closed-door advisory roles, for many years.
“I’m working on something much bigger than getting to the moon”
‘I think it will involve the leader of a nation taking a significant occasion, for example, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, and using it to make a general,’ – he pauses – ‘and yet very specific announcement. Perhaps that would occur two and a half years into an administration. That might be something for you to look out for…’
Well, you heard the man: set your watches to 20 July, 2019. I’d guess, from the coughing in the room that followed, that NASA (or, more likely, a certain deeply ambitious first-term President) might use that poignant 50th anniversary to announce its entrance into a new space race – the race for Mars.
It’s a contest, that, up until now, has largely been dominated by private parties. The week before we meet, a piece Buzz had written for TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People praised Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO of space exploration company Blue Origin, and spoke of their ‘special space kinship’. Aldrin has also been in talks with SpaceX founder Elon Musk (‘I’m staying quite close to what he plans on doing,’ he says) but the admission, from someone who really ought to know, that NASA could be about to join the table certainly ups the stakes a bit.
There are other things, of course, that Buzz knows that we do not. As well as just how it feels to venture into outer space, he also knows just how it feels to come back down to Earth. (It’s telling that the title of Aldrin’s first autobiography is Return to Earth rather than, say, ‘Journey to the Moon’.) ‘I wasn’t really allowed to come back and just fade into obscurity,’ he tells me. ‘And that change in the rest of my life was not appealing. I would lose a lot of that privacy,’ he smiles. ‘And end up sitting in rooms like this and talking for the rest of my life.’ Buzz’s post-NASA life was pockmarked by ill fortune and addiction. His mother had committed suicide shortly before the first lunar mission in a fit of terror, he suspects, over his imminent fame. He began to fear that her despair was hereditary, and started drinking heavily to medicate against the gathering anxiety. He divorced his first wife, hastily re-married, and soon divorced again.
But when I ask Buzz what advice he might have for his younger self on the eve of that mission and that fame, he dismisses the premise with a winning smile. ‘So many things worked out in my favour.’ he says. ‘I can’t really think what I would have done to make things any different.’
“I don’t think you’d make a good colonist. And anyway, you’re too old’
He’d let himself know that ‘the government doesn’t pay well, but I quickly found that out anyway’. (Just eight years after the ticker-tape parades, the second man on the Moon was working in a Cadillac dealership in Beverly Hills.)
And what about the Groundhog Day of press junkets and awkwardly-crowded hotel suites? ‘It all adds to an understanding and an improvement. I’ve written books for the same reason – to motivate.’ Then that wry, deep laugh again. ‘But you don’t get money out of writing books.’
Who precisely, then, is he trying to motivate? ‘The future Martians,’ he says definitively. I ask him whether he thinks I’d make a good colonist and he replies, ‘I don’t think you’d really like it. And anyway, you’re too old now.’
But there might also be lessons for those of us destined to stay behind. ‘It is the highest form of life to adjust and to accommodate other people, without saying to them, “In order for me to survive, you have to go.”’
It is unclear, for a moment, to what sort of aliens he is alluding. ‘We went to the Moon because we needed to upgrade our capability. We may need to do that again.’ Then he opens up his flight jacket to show me his T-shirt. It reads: ‘Get your ass to Mars!’ in red on black.
Is that his personal motto? ‘No, I think that might just be Don’t Stop,’ he says. ‘It’s a shame to acquire the capability to do something, only to let it go to waste.’
I suspect Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have heard that injunction first hand. Then the clipboards shuffle, the room bustles in preparation of the next journalist on the roster, and the carousel spins on. So might Command Pilot Aldrin take that one-way ticket to Mars, if it’s ever offered to him? ‘That’s a good question,’ he sighs. ‘But I think I’d rather use my head to make things better. I’m more valuable down here, giving other people their chance to go up there.’ He points to the ceiling, his finger sparkling with a crescent Moon ring. Whoever wins the new space race, Buzz will be with them, even if he isn’t.
Buzz Aldrin spoke to The Jackal on the 60th anniversary of the Omega Speedmaster, the ‘Moonwatch’