Buzz Aldrin: Astronaut and Innovator
Buzz Aldrin earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Military Academy in New York and saw action during the Korean War as a fighter pilot. He later became flight commander in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Germany. Aldrin resumed his studies after his commission in Europe and earned a doctorate in astronautics from MIT. He was later selected to NASA’s third group of astronauts and distinguished himself as a top astronaut during the Gemini 12 mission, when he successfully conducted intense extravehicular activities.
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission. As command pilot, Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on the moon, with Aldrin following him only a few minutes later. While on the lunar surface, they collected geological samples, raised the American flag, and performed other scientific tasks. The mission accomplished all its goals and the two astronauts, together with crewmate Michael Collins who waited for them aboard the command module Columbia, returned safely to Earth. The mission was an unprecedented success and the culmination of a decade of effort on the part of the United States. Buzz Aldrin and his crewmates gained instant worldwide fame.
After retiring from NASA, Buzz Aldrin returned to the U.S. Air Force in a managerial position and dedicated himself to promoting space exploration through lectures, books, and even technical innovations.
Early Life and Education
Buzz Aldrin was born Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., on January 20, 1930, in Montclair, New Jersey. His father, Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Sr., had a successful career in the armed forces and retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He had studied with rocket developer Robert Goddard and was considered an aviation pioneer, and his career inspired Edwin to follow the same path. Edwin’s mother, Marion Aldrin, née Moon, was the daughter of an army chaplain.
Edwin had a very active childhood and was a proud Boy Scout. While attending Montclair High School, he played football for the local team. He was also an excellent student. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. In 1951, he graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
The nickname “Buzz” came about from his younger sister Fay who couldn’t exactly pronounce the word brother and instead it sounded more like “buzzer.” From then on, the nickname “Buzz” stuck. In 1988, Aldrin legally changed his first name to “Buzz.”
After graduating from the military academy, Buzz Aldrin entered the U.S. Air Force and began flight training. While in the armed forces, he did active duty in the Korean War, where he served as a jet fighter pilot and flew a total of 66 combat missions, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. When he returned to the United States, he took a position as an aerial gunnery instructor. In 1954, Aldrin married actress Joan Archer. A year later, he was assigned flight commander with a squadron stationed in West Germany.
In 1959, Aldrin decided to continue his studies and enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a Master’s degree. Soon he discovered that he enjoyed research and academic work and pursued a doctoral degree. Secretly, however, he harbored hopes that he may be selected as an astronaut for NASA’s space programs.
Aldrin earned his doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics in January 1963. His fervent interest in the manned space programs developed at NASA made him choose a doctoral thesis titled, Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous. He even dedicated the thesis to the people working on the programs, expressing hopes that his research would be valuable to them. Still, his greatest wish was to be part of the teams at NASA, not as a scientist or researcher, but as an astronaut. The concept of space rendezvous, however, which he formulated during his research, was immensely valuable and was later used on all NASA rendezvous missions.
After completing his doctorate, Aldrin received a position in the Air Force division involved in the Gemini program, where his responsibility was to assist in the development of docking and rendezvous techniques. The Gemini program, which had a two-man capsule and was capable of much longer missions in space, was NASA’s next step after Project Mercury on the road to putting a man on the moon. Although he had applied for the astronaut corps, his application was rejected because he had no experience as a test pilot. NASA later removed this requirement, and Aldrin became eligible. In October 1963, he joined NASA’s third astronaut group.
Buzz Aldrin’s first assignment as an astronaut was to serve as backup crew for Gemini 10, together with Jim Lovell. According to NASA’s usual rotation scheme, the two astronauts should have been the prime crew of Gemini 13, but NASA had already decided that Gemini 12 was the last mission of the program. The official schedule was changed when the Gemini 9 prime crew died during a trainer jet crash. This led to Aldrin and Jim Lovell being assigned backup crew for Gemini 9 instead of Gemini 10. Following the same crew rotation scheme, they were confirmed as prime crew for Gemini 12, the program’s ambitious orbital flight mission, scheduled for November 11, 1966. The main objective of Gemini 12 was to perform an EVA (extravehicular activity) rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle. NASA had also encountered some severe issues during previous missions and needed a reevaluation of extravehicular activities. This put a lot of pressure on Buzz Aldrin.
Despite all the preparations, the mission seemed sabotaged from the start when the radar contact between the Gemini 12 module and the target deteriorated inexplicably. This forced the crew to perform the rendezvous manually. After a failed attempt from Lovell, Aldrin eventually accomplished the task. During Gemini 12, Aldrin spent five and a half hours outside the craft, establishing a new record for a spacewalk. This was the longest spacewalk ever done up to that moment, and it allowed Aldrin to test tools and perform scientific experiments whose success was crucial for future missions.
The next step in NASA’s quest to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade was Project Apollo. The Apollo capsule was designed to carry three astronauts on a round trip to the moon. Aldrin’s first assignment in the Apollo program was as backup command module pilot for Apollo 8, the first manned flight around the moon. During this mission, he contributed to the development of new navigation techniques.
Following the rotation scheme, NASA assigned Buzz Aldrin as lunar module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong as command pilot and Michael Collins as command module pilot. The main objective of Apollo 11 was to land the lunar module on the moon and bring it safely back to Earth. Although the astronauts were instructed to collect geological and rock samples, the scientific goals were secondary.
On July 20, 1969, Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the lunar surface, in the Sea of Tranquility. A devoted Presbyterian, Aldrin held a religious communion on the moon. After landing on the lunar surface, he sent a radio message to Earth, asking listeners to contemplate the magnitude of the events they were witnessing and to express their gratitude in their own personal ways. He then proceeded to take communion on the moon in private. The two astronauts exited the lunar module, first Armstrong then a few minutes later Aldrin, on July 21, and became the first humans to walk on the moon. Buzz Aldrin exclaimed, “Beautiful view!” And a few seconds later, "Magnificent desolation." The unprecedented feat was witnessed by a television audience of 600 million people.
One of Aldrin’s main tasks during Apollo 11 was to document the trip, so he was the one who took the majority of the pictures. He also collected surface samples with Armstrong. Aldrin later recalled how he felt once he had stepped onto the moon and began to look around, “I quickly discovered that I felt balanced—comfortably upright—only when I was tilted slightly forward. I also felt a bit disoriented: on the earth when one looks at the horizon, it appears flat; on the moon, so much smaller than the earth and quite without high terrain, the horizon in all directions visibly curved down away from us.” Aldrin and Armstrong spent more than twenty-one and a half hours on the moon. Aldrin later recalled some of his thoughts on the moon landing experience, “My strongest memory of those few hours as the first men on the lunar surface was the constant worry that we’d never accomplish all the experiments we were scheduled to do.”
Apollo 11 lasted eight days and the astronauts returned safely to Earth. Afterwards, Aldrin and his fellow crewmates did a 45-day international tour, meeting world leaders and sharing details of their heroic achievement. President Richard Nixon awarded them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American honor.
Life After NASA
On July 1971, two years after Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin returned to active duty in the U.S. Air Force and was appointed commander of the Test Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base. Without managerial experience, however, the new position proved challenging to Aldrin, especially since he had never been a test pilot. His poor performance in the new role, corroborated with other personal problems, caused Aldrin to succumb to depression. On March 1972, he retired from the Air Force.
In his 1973 autobiography, Return to Earth, Aldrin gives a detailed account of his years after Apollo 11, when he struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism. He later revealed that he believes his depression to have been inherited from his mother’s side of the family. A year before the moon landing, his mother committed suicide and his maternal grandfather had also committed suicide. In 1975, he checked in for rehab and started the long climb back to sobriety and metal health.
In 1974, Aldrin divorced his wife, and a year later, he married Beverly Van Zile. The second marriage was, however, short-lived, ending in 1978. Aldrin married a third time in 1988, to Lois Driggs Cannon, a Stanford graduate who also became Aldrin’s personal manager. The marriage ended in 2011.
For many years after his retirement from NASA, Aldrin continued to act as an advocate and supporter of space exploration and manned missions. In 1985, he joined the University of North Dakota’s College of Aerospace Sciences, where he helped in the development of a Space Studies department. In 1985, in his efforts to support sustained space exploration, Aldrin designed a special spacecraft system which makes perpetual orbits between Earth and Mars possible with less propellant. According to Aldrin, “The most important decision we’ll have to make about space travel is whether to commit to a permanent human presence on Mars. Without it, we’ll never be a true space-faring people.” The concept is now known as the Aldrin cycler. Buzz Aldrin also has a U.S. patent for a permanent space station he designed. During his retirement years, Aldrin founded a reusable rocket design company, Starcraft Boosters, Inc., and a non-profit, ShareSpace Foundation.
Buzz Aldrin remained, over the years, a dominant presence in public life in all matters related to manned space exploration and astronautics. As a spokesman for space exploration, he has given lectures all over the world, sharing his personal vision for future space missions and his hopes for humankind’s exploration of the universe.
In 2001, he was appointed to the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry by the Bush administration. In 2013, he showed his support for a manned mission to Mars in an opinion piece published in the New York Times, in which he also expressed hopes that humankind will become an interplanetary species. Always the explorer, in 2016, Aldrin visited the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. The visit was, however, exhausting for the 86-year-old, who fell ill and had to be evacuated to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Buzz Aldrin received numerous awards and medals for his achievements, including the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal in 1969 for his role in Apollo 11, the Legion of Merit for his accomplishments in the Gemini and Apollo missions, and NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal. He also received honorary degrees from several universities.
Buzz Aldrin resided many years in Los Angeles, California. After his third divorce, he moved to Satellite Beach, Florida. He has three children from his three marriages. He is currently on the National Space Society's Board of Governors and has served as the organization's chairman.
Besides three autobiographies, Return to Earth, Men from Earth, and Magic Desolation, Buzz Aldrin authored several children’s books and two science-fiction novels, Encounter with Tiber and The Return. His lifelong commitment to promoting manned space exploration and his role in the most important space programs in history earned Buzz Aldrin a place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Buzz Aldrin Is Evacuated From the South Pole After Falling Ill. December 1, 2016. The New York Times. Accessed November 6, 2018.
Buzz Aldrin and Apollo 11. July 31, 2018. Space.com. Accessed November 6, 2018.
Questions for Buzz Aldrin: The Man on the Moon. June 21, 2009. The New York Times. Accessed November 6, 2018.
Robin Williams' Death Reminds Buzz Aldrin of His Own Struggle. August 12, 2014. NBC News. Accessed November 6, 2018.
Buzz Aldrin’s Official Website. Accessed November 11, 2018.
Aldrin, Colonel Edwin E. “Buzz”, Jr. Return to Earth. Random House. 1973.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster. 2000.
Shepard, Alan, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings. Open Road Integrated Media. 2011.