Honoring Buzz Aldrin – Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moonwalk

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Few men in history have done what Apollo 11’s lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin has done.  On the 51st anniversary of Apollo 11's historic moon landing – July 20, 1969 – a look back is warranted.  As a former USAF F-15E pilot, I admire Buzz for what many know and what many may not.  What Buzz, now 90, represents is more than meets the eye.  

As a young man, Buzz Aldrin was a go-getter.  He played on a New Jersey State Championship football team, as a 160-pound center.  At West Point, he was first in the plebe class, third at graduation in 1951, and a year later in an F-86 Sabre over Korea, where he flew 66 combat missions.  Aldrin shot down two MiG-15s, one captured on a gun camera, pilot ejecting.  Before he left Korea, Buzz earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals. 

In the Cold War, Aldrin flew F-100 Super Sabres over Germany, nuclear weapons under the wings.  West Point friend Ed White did the same and encouraged Buzz to apply to NASA.

If get-up-and-go counts, so does resilience.  Aldrin applied in 1962 and was rejected.  He was not a test pilot, then a qualification.  Determined to contribute to space exploration, he completed his Ph.D. in astronautical engineering at MIT in 1963.   

Truth is often stranger than fiction – and much of Buzz’s life seems that way.  Call it destiny, at age 2, he flew with his father, his mother’s maiden name was Moon, and his doctoral thesis was entitled “Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous.”  

In 1963, the test pilot requirement was dropped, and he applied to NASA again.  This time, he got in.  Ironically, after leaving NASA, he became Commandant of the USAF Test Pilot School.  But in 1963, he has other objectives.   

The shadow cast by his Ph.D. was long.  When circumstances put him on the prime crew list for Gemini 12, with Jim Lovell, work on his Ph.D. paid off.  Mid-flight, as two attempted docking with a target vehicle, their radar failed.  The only option was manual docking.    

Unsurprisingly, Aldrin was able to conduct a successful docking because of his background in orbital rendezvous, deep understanding of the sextant, and the charts he drafted to work with Lovell complete the docking maneuver.  That single event was critical.  It showed manual docking was possible, and Aldrin knew how to do it.   

Resilience is part of character.  Close friend Ed White died in Apollo One’s pad fire.  The pressure on Apollo astronauts grew, as the Soviets pushed to get to the moon before America.   

By the time Apollo 11 stood on the pad, Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins knew the stakes.  All were calm.  Buzz’s heartrate on Gemini 12 was remarkably low.  Asked why he said space-walking was fun.  On Apollo 11, their heartrates were low again because of their confidence in the mission, the technology and themselves.    

Launch on Saturn 5’s massive rocket was so smooth, according to recent interviews, they only knew they were off by watching gauges.  Headed for the moon, they were busy – for three days.

As Aldrin and Armstrong descended to the moon, an abort alarm sounded.  With mission control’s nod, they kept descending.  What did Aldrin think?  “Well, it was different.”  That was about it.   

On the surface, second out of the lunar module – he joked about not locking the door behind him.  The truth is, had he pulled it tight, the likelihood was airlock.  The joke was real.  

On the surface, they put out experiments.  They modeled calm where you could raise a thumb and cover all humanity.  Did he think about that?  Not really, as they had jobs to do.

Stepping onto the moon’s surface, they disengaged the circuit breaker for the ascent engine.  They did not want it lighting-off while they were out.  Back inside, one of the backpacks snapped the ascent engine’s circuit breaker.  What did they do?  Called Mission Control, who told them to sleep, as they thought of something.  Incredibly, they slept.

The next morning, no plan.  What did they do?  Considered using a metal pen to press the circuit breaker in – to light the ascent engine.  But Aldrin noted metal conducted.  A short circuit would not help. It could leave them there for eternity.   

The next thought was his finger, except that fingers conduct.  Answer?  A pen that did not conduct.  Result?  Successful ignition rendezvous with Mike Collins and return home. 

When asked how he kept his sense of humor – even observing they were “number one on the runway” – Aldrin was casual.  We do what we can from where we are.  On splashdown, the crew coordinated seamlessly.  In quarantine, they kept their humor. 

In a mid-2020 article, Aldrin addressed our national quarantine, reflecting on his own quarantine after Apollo 11.  "Faced with frustration, restraint, stress, adversity, and boredom, laughter helps."  He added, "slowing down" can be good, even if not “voluntarily,” it “can be a well-disguised blessing." 

So here is the point.  Buzz lived a dozen lives; young New Jersey athlete, West Point and MIT academic, combat aviator, stood nuclear alert in Germany, an innovator on neutral buoyancy training, an essential resource to Gemini 12, and resilient when adversity struck on the moon and in life.   

Back on Earth, he battled other adversities, somehow finding the strength to overcome, going on to lead people, write books and articles, talk with kids and PhDs, pioneer space tourism and cyclers to Mars, even today arguing for more efficient ways to the moon – and Mars.   

Somehow, 51 years after stepping onto the moon – which he described as “magnificent desolation” – Buzz Aldrin still has eyes on the future, reminding us to believe in America and its people.  He is exploring new ideas, thinking, writing, wondering, working, and proving that America and Americans are one of a kind.  On the anniversary of an epic moonwalk, so is Buzz. 

Kent D. Johnson is a former F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog fighter pilot, and a political-military adviser on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force and senior US adviser to the commandant of the Royal Air Force think tank.  He is currently a defense studies adjunct at North Central Texas College.

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