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Time and Space
on 7 March 2010
It's remarkable that less than 70 years after the first heavier than air flight in 1903, human beings were able to fly to the moon. It's even more remarkable to realise that many of today's mobile phones have more computing power than the Apollo 11 which took them there. Yet what brings everything together is the vision, courage and determination of the human race to explore more facets of their existence. For anyone who recognises that America's victory in the space race was about politics not peace then Buzz Aldrin's book is testament to the human condition.
Of the three astronauts who travelled on Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong lives in relative obscurity in Ohio, where he was born, following a successful career in education and business. Michael Collins worked for the US government and then the Smithsonian Institute before going into business on his own account while Aldrin went through two divorces, depression and alcoholism. If Aldrin has a beef with NASA it's that while they had rigorous physical examinations (which Aldrin still undertakes annually) no-one seems to have devised post space psychological tests. This is even more surprising seeing as both Armstrong and Aldrin had seen active service as fighter pilots during the Korean war.
Autobiographies are essentially self-centred otherwise they are fictitious. In Aldrin's case he finds a balance between the mission which brought him fame and the rest of his life. That life was already in a mess (along with that of several other astronauts) because of the demands of his training and work. His marriage had been drained of emotion and was in decline. It wasn't helped by his depressive personality which expressed itself in a need to set and achieve goals. It may also have been inherited as his maternal grandfather committed suicide as did his mother, who hated the publicity which came with Aldrin's fame.
Aldrin's disillusion started soon after his return from the moon. He and his colleagues went on a world tour which he considered was done as a public and political exercise. It started badly at Marquette University in Wisconsin where anti-war demonstrators and others pelted Armstrong and Aldrin with tomatoes and eggs. His sense of isolation was heightened when he started an affair with a woman who, once he had divorced his first wife, decided she wanted to marry someone else. He drifted into a second marriage, possibly on the rebound, which only lasted two years. Competitive by nature he looked for new opportunities to top his moon visit but, unsurprising, was unable to find one. Every rejection or put down was met with a resort to the bottle. It didn't help when a commemorative stamp was issued with only Armstrong's image on it.
Aldrin found difficulty in adjusting to post Apollo life in a worthwhile manner. He had several jobs but none that satisfied the standards he set for himself. It took him until 1978 to accept he was an alcoholic. Even when he did there was the continuing problem of his depression, which is only mysterious to those who have never suffered from it. Even after he married his third wife Lois, on whom he lavishes adoration and praise, he would sink into despair. Thanks to her strong personality he was dragged, often unwillingly, through it. Lois clearly means a lot to Aldrin perhaps because she brought order into his chaotic life. I'm not certain his first wife gets sufficient credit for her efforts while his second wife was a drinker like himself.
Aldrin is disappointed with the way the space programme ended. Although there is a commitment to future space travel there is insufficient commitment to guarantee it. He does not understand why economics should be allowed to stand in the way of exploration, although it may be that only those with what Harry H Corbett once called "adequate conkers" will be able to make the trip. He is an advocate of space tourism. The first such tourist Dennis Tito funded himself for a trip on a Russian space-craft in 2001 at a cost of anywhere between $12m and $20m. I don't think I'll be troubling the bank for a loan.
Aldrin eventually learned to live with fame and, by remaining sober, deal with it. There was the odd exception, particularly when he decked a conspiracy theorist who called the moon landing a hoax and Aldrin a liar. It was understandable and, in any case, who would believe anyone whose reaction to being knocked over was "Did you get that on tape?" Most Americans stood up an applauded. This book too should be applauded for its honesty. If it's too self-absorbed (September 11th does not merit a mention) that's a plus rather than a minus because it illustrates just how honest an account Aldrin has provided. I'm sure others can find greater fault in Aldrin's book than I have but, whatever its shortcomings, it's still worth four stars.