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)