There are some questions you don't ask Buzz Aldrin - clichis he's heard so often that they set his teeth on edge. Chief among them: How did it feel to walk on the moon?
"I try to answer," he admits wearily. "I say, 'It felt terrific. Tremendously satisfying. The mission was going well, and our training had prepared us perfectly.'
"But then people say, 'No ... how did it feel? How did it really feel?'" He bristles. "For Christ's sake, I don't know. I just don't know. I have been frustrated since the day I left the moon by that question." He shakes his head. "Some things just can't be described. And stepping onto the moon was one of them."
Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the day that Aldrin and Apollo 11 crew members Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins became the most famous men on Earth. Six hundred million people watched their 35-story-tall Saturn V blast off from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969. At least that many tuned in four days later, via radio and television, to hear the first words uttered from another world. Armstrong's "One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind" appears on the commemorative coins. But it was Aldrin who provided the more poetic pronouncement: "Magnificent desolation."
"Desolation" describes Aldrin's life in the years that followed Apollo. While many of his colleagues entered business, he returned to military service - but no one knew quite what to do with him. In 1971, Aldrin was made commander of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base. "A highly prestigious position," he says dryly, "if you were a test pilot. But I wasn't."
Buzz had always enjoyed his Scotch, but now began drinking heavily. A series of accidents at the school were blamed on "supervisor error." Aldrin felt squeezed. He began to lose control. Depression and alcoholism beset him, and his license to fly was revoked: a staggering blow to the lunar module pilot of Apollo 11. After hitting rock bottom -- at one point putting a pistol to his head -- Aldrin pulled himself together and sought counseling.
People hearing this are rarely surprised. Life after a moon landing, they assume, must be anticlimactic (how else to explain the fact that a third of the moonwalkers have become artists, spiritualists and Christian evangelists?). Not so, says Aldrin. He's been sober now for 20 years and claims to be at his best: "I'm thrilled, I'm challenged, I'm with life more now." Much of his enthusiasm comes from a quasi-spiritual cause of his own: the development and commercialization of civilian space travel.
Aldrin now works out of a Beverly Hills, Calif., apartment he shares with his second wife, Lois. The telephone rings constantly.
"Buzz is an enormous business," Lois says, harried. She's an impish firebrand in a black sweatshirt and loud tights. "He works as if he were still on assignment for NASA: trying to develop better rockets, a better space station. He's been working 15 years on a way to get to Mars.
"He's found his niche," she concedes. "Which is space."
The Aldrins' home is a tasteful blend of oriental decor and astronaut kitsch. A foot stands on the coffee table: a life-sized, silver replica of Aldrin's bare foot, poised on a bronze moonscape. Paintings and posters of his lunar stroll decorate the walls; mementos and honors from the space program line the shelves. A bust of Aldrin's head rests above the television, sporting a West Point full-dress hat.
The front doors open and Aldrin walks in, his hand in a sack of baked tortilla chips. He's wearing faded jeans and a neon-blue golf shirt. But Aldrin hasn't been golfing; he's been auditioning for a Saab commercial.
Pushing 70, with smoke-white hair and vivid, visionary eyes, Aldrin looks like a cross between Ken Kesey and the Wizard of Oz. The similarities transcend appearance. To his admirers, Aldrin is the ultimate Captain Trips: a brilliant intellect with the energy and expertise to lead us to the stars.
His aura of otherwordly celebrity is palpable. I'll be with Aldrin for hours, but I never forget who I'm talking to. Let's face it: Everest is difficult, but with enough time and willpower you can climb it. Circling the world in a balloon is dangerous and wacky, but primarily expensive. You can sneak into Mecca, dive the wreck of Titanic, and dogsled to the South Pole.
But no amount of time, money or ambition will get you to the moon. In all of history, only 12 humans have walked there. Tom Wolfe, Michael Jordan, even Madonna will someday be forgotten -- but Aldrin and Armstrong will not. They were the chosen, Earth's emissaries, at the dawn of the Space Age.
Despite these credentials, Aldrin has his detractors as well. A small but visible cadre of critics -- including some former astronauts -- are cynical about his big plans and Wizard-like bluster. He's drawing too much attention to himself. He has something to sell. The fact that what he's selling is the future of spaceflight -- citizen explorers, orbiting hotels and sightseeing trips to the moon -- matters not. Flyboys, no matter how they milk the system (and even the taciturn Armstrong isn't above an occasional TV pitch), are expected to be discreet. To keep a low profile: Aw, shucks, it weren't nuthin'. That big ol' bird practically flew itself. The Right Stuff.
Asked about Armstrong, Aldrin shies from the question. There's a long ache there, held in check by loyalty and discretion. It's well known that Aldrin badly wanted to take that first step on the moon. There was even a precedent for it. On the Gemini and Apollo missions, he reminds me, the second-in-command always performed the EVA, or "extra-vehicular activity." Apollo 11 would be the exception: NASA (very wisely) decided that the first footfall on another world should be made by a civilian, rather than an Air Force colonel.
But the issue cuts much deeper. It concerns the mantle of heroism. Aldrin, stumping around the globe in support of space travel, is sick of being asked how it feels to be the "second man on the moon." The question is especially galling since Armstrong, NASA's banner boy, isn't compelled to run around promoting space exploration. Neil's an airplane buff, not a rocket man. He doesn't share the sense of debt, or the evangelical spirit, that drives Aldrin.
But Aldrin's frequent cameos (he's appeared on everything from Letterman to "The Simpsons") can be taken as grandstanding, an impression not diminished when he takes the stage in a packed auditorium, holds aloft a "Toy Story" action figure, and declares, "I am Buzz Lightyear!"
The joke, as ever, has a ring of truth. Like Lightyear -- an all-American superhero who discovers he can't really fly -- Aldrin is a complex character, a man who has known the heights and depths at their most extreme. A West Point alumnus and Air Force fighter pilot, he shot down two MiGs in dogfights over Korea. When the war ended he enrolled at MIT, where he earned a Ph.D. in orbital rendezvous theory. Aldrin joined the astronaut corps in 1963, and in 1966 performed the longest spacewalk of the Gemini program: five-and-a-half hours dangling outside the capsule. Three years later, he and civilian test pilot Neil Armstrong were handed the Holy Grail of the space program: Apollo 11. Aldrin was 39 years old.
One of Aldrin's most vivid recollections of the events of 1969 comes not from the surface of the moon, but from the U.S.S. Hornet, the ship that recovered the Apollo 11 command module at sea. Placed in a quarantine trailer, the astronauts were asked if they wanted to watch the TV coverage of their mission.
"And as we watched," Aldrin says quietly, "I remember turning to Neil and saying: 'Look: We missed the whole thing.'
"Why? Because we didn't see it on television. We didn't share in the electrifying moment leading to touchdown. Hell, we were right there. We did it! But that's not the important thing. We missed the reaction, the emotion embodied by the sight of Walter Cronkite wiping away his tears. That sense of participation, shared by millions of people around the world -- people who had their lives affected, touched, changed."
"Why do I think their lives were affected? Because they want me to know where they were when we landed on the moon. When they see me, they get reminded -- and they remember exactly where they were that moment. They know exactly what they were doing. It's crystal-clear in their minds."
The allure of spaceflight hasn't diminished for Aldrin. He bemoans America's lack of a clear agenda in space, and scorns the political reluctance to establish a human presence on the moon and planets.
"Let's jump ahead 50 years," he posits. "Can you imagine looking back on a nation that got people to the moon -- six times! -- and then had such a big gap? It's the epitome of short-term thinking. People ask me, What do we do next? Go back to the moon? To Mars? Neither! We're not ready to do either, because we don't have the launch vehicle system!"
Over lunch by the pool of a nearby hotel, Aldrin outlines an ambitious plan for the development and commercialization of outer space. It's achingly attractive -- particularly since the goal, the centerpiece of the entire plan, is adventure travel.
"Travel and tourism now form the world's largest industry, with a gross annual output approaching $3.5 trillion dollars a year. Space tourism," he claims, "is a logical outgrowth of the adventure tourist market."
Building up space tourism must begin, he insists, with rethinking the space shuttle. Designed 25 years ago, our current shuttle rides piggyback on solid-fuel boosters. It's an outdated technology with a dangerous drawback: Solid-fuel rockets can't be turned off after liftoff. The sensible alternative, Aldrin says, is to develop a liquid-fuel, "fly-back" booster (LFBB). Such boosters (close cousins of the rockets that powered the Gemini and Apollo missions) would lift a second stage -- a space shuttle or satellite -- into near orbit. The shuttle or satellite engine then takes over, while the booster flies back to Earth -- automatically -- and lands on a runway for refueling.
Why hasn't anyone built such a booster? NASA hasn't because its flight rate isn't high enough. Commercial launch companies haven't because it's cheaper -- in the short term -- to use throwaway rockets. "Nobody has the incentive to design a reusable booster," observes Aldrin, "unless they find new, long-range applications."
The application Aldrin envisions, of course, is space tourism. Before that can begin, though, both government and business have to be sold on LFBB technology. Anticipating this, his company -- Starcraft -- has patented a small, reusable rocket called StarBooster. It uses replaceable liquid fuel "cartridges," much like modern fountain pens. The booster itself -- which will be about the size of a Boeing 737 jet -- is still on the drawing board. Aldrin shows me a model, the size and shape of a silver-dipped biscotti.
Aldrin's hope is that "demonstrator" rockets like StarBooster will convince NASA and private industry that reusable boosters are good business -- leading to ever bigger boosters and an eventual redesign of the shuttle.
To spur this process, he says, we must start sending private citizens into space. These "citizen explorers" could be chosen through a corporate sweepstakes (sponsored by, say, Pepsi or Nike) and given seats on the current shuttle. The contests will prove so popular that private industry will jump on the bandwagon. With reusable boosters and a ready market, we'll soon see a whole fleet of shuttles dedicated to space tourism -- built by Boeing/Lockheed, operated by the airlines, and booked through companies like Space Adventures and Club Med.
"Very nice," you sigh. "But what about me? With seats priced around $70,000 (headphones and martinis extra), what chance do I have of watching 'Alien XII' in orbit?"
"Chance" is the word. Aldrin proposes a national lottery, overseen by his nonprofit ShareSpace Foundation. As the space tourism market grows -- i.e., as the spaceships get bigger -- so does the number of prizes.
Proceeds will pay for the seats. They'll also be reinvested into education and into aerospace research that mainstream companies (which were dragged kicking and screaming into the space tourism business to begin with) won't touch. Further revenues will pour in from -- you guessed it -- logo placement. Citizen explorers will likely embark on their flights sporting Eagle Creek space-sickness bags, Reebok Skywalkers and Calvin Klein One helmets ("A helmet for a man and a woman").
At this point, space tourism grows exponentially. Empty first-stage fuel tanks -- left in orbit by selected spacecraft -- will be captured and reconditioned, forming the core of an orbiting space hotel. Life-support systems and minibars are brought to the site by a "heavy lifter" -- a huge, reusable booster on par with the Saturn V. Such rockets will be built by industry to support space tourism. But once they are built, their uses will be legion. Leased by NASA, they become the workhorses for long-overdue missions: bases on the moon and the human exploration of Mars.
This brave new future could be upon us, says Aldrin, by the year 2020. At that point, the fun really begins. With an orbiting hotel in operation, work begins on the "lunar cycler," a spacefaring cruise ship that uses the gravitational energy of the planets -- the so-called "slingshot effect" -- to maintain a continuous loop between Earth and the moon.
Aldrin demonstrates the concept with condiments: a Heinz ketchup bottle is the Earth, a mustard jar the moon, a bottle of Tabasco the spacecraft. Passengers embark in Earth orbit; the lunar cycler whips around the home planet, speeds to the moon, rimshots the moon's gravity well, and returns to Earth a week later. Far-fetched as it sounds, the math is pretty basic. Aldrin -- once known in NASA as "Dr. Rendezvous" -- has worked out the details.
Nor has he stopped there -- for after the moon comes Mars. The first Mars cycler will take only scientists on its two-year mission to the red planet; but when the ship loops back to Earth for its four-month maintenance cycle, the interest will be intense.
"Can you imagine, in 2030, taking a space cruise on the very ship that carried the first human beings to Mars?" Aldrin stares at me, stone sober. "I can't believe that people wouldn't line up for that possibility."
And people will -- if the response to Aldrin's international appearances is any indication. Circling the globe on a grueling schedule, Aldrin pitches his vision at any venue that will have him. The month before our meeting, he'd made two speaking trips to Europe; a few weeks after, he was the featured guest at the National Press Club in Washington.
Unfortunately, wishing on a star -- even at the National Press Club -- doesn't make something so. Aldrin's ideas are compelling, and his science is robust -- but the obstacles he faces are daunting. To begin with, there's the matter of investment. If private companies aren't ready to design LFBBs individually, they're unlikely to hand Aldrin the money to do it. And though he's personally approached a handful of venture capitalists, Aldrin finds himself trapped in a time-worn Catch-22: Everyone wants to know who else is investing before they put up their own ante. At present, StarBooster's bottom line is decidedly sub-orbital.
Finally, the sad fact remains: The majority of citizens are quite content to "explore strange new worlds" simply by turning on their televisions. Though opinion polls show large public enthusiasm for the space program, only a small minority of voters favor its expansion. In recent polls, only 8 percent said they would increase funding for space exploration. Faced with other choices -- like social programs -- most Americans put space exploration on their list of budgetary cuts.
Call it ignorance -- or a lack of imagination -- but political will depends a lot on public support. No matter how good the prospects for space tourism are, NASA's desire to build new boosters and space shuttles is sure to be an uphill battle.
As we return to Aldrin's suite, the gibbous moon hangs over Wilshire Boulevard. He appears not to notice. I ask if the significance of the moon landings -- an 11-year effort akin to building the pyramids -- has changed over the years.
"I think the lunar landing has mellowed with time," he says. "It's grown into peoples' minds, as history. Like when I'm talking to someone, and I realize I'm describing something that happened before they were born.
"But Bucky Fuller acknowledged that there was a difference between the people who grew up before Apollo, and those who grew up afterwards. Before, we lived in a world that had restrictions, limitations. The people who grew up afterward have a sense that almost anything -- even something as bizarre as going to the moon -- is possible."
But his own memories of the Apollo era remain bittersweet.
"Going to the moon is not a remembrance filled with great happiness," Aldrin admits. "It was a traumatic period of my life. We succeeded in what we were doing -- but there were some rough edges."
"So looking up at the moon isn't like seeing a picture of the Eiffel Tower and longing for Paris?" I ask.
"That's what the people think I should think. But I've got to balance the romantic image with being honest. There's not a longing; there's an identification. When I look at the moon now, it's no longer a stranger. It's a friend. I've seen it up close, in different, discrete phases. Of course it's still beautiful, and I appreciate it as much as anybody. But we've got experiments up there. It's dirtied our boots."