Magnificent Desolation: Buzz Aldrin’s Moon Walk and Its Aftermath

Under pressure to perform, he had no opportunity to embrace the moment.

Everyone remembers the name of the first man who walked on the moon. Many remember the second, but it is a smaller number. And most of us recall the first words that Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon, said when he stepped down onto the lunar surface that first time. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But who remembers Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s first words?

Buzz Aldrin was an unusual man for an astronaut. He had been part of the third group of astronauts. (The story of the first batch of seven was documented in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.) Buzz was the first astronaut with a doctoral degree. The others nicknamed him Dr. Rendezvous because his doctoral thesis at M.I.T. had been on “Manned Orbital Rendezvous.”

He was unusual for another reason as well. He had a poet’s heart. Though driven to be the best in everything he did (in part due to an overbearing father) and though a member of the first mission to the moon and the first moon landing — the culmination point of all his childhood dreams — it later left him depressed to have not been selected to walk first on the moon. He felt he’d let his father down, had failed.

But even this wasn’t the hardest part of Aldrin’s moon experience. In his book Return To Earth Aldrin records the emotions that overwhelmed him in that first moonwalk. The human soul within him was bursting in response to the astonishing beauty that surrounded him and his own overshadowed and forgotten words were these: “Beautiful view. Magnificent sight out here. Magnificent desolation.”

But Aldrin’s desire to respond to this stark and awesome new world was squelched by the pressures of the mission. NASA had given these astronauts eight hours of experiments to set up plus other responsibilities, with only four hours to accomplish them in. There was no time here to be distracted by the scenery. He wanted to stop time, stand in astonishment and embrace the moment, take it in. But they were on a mission. They had moon rocks to collect.

Afterwards, when the astronauts returned to earth, the world gave them a hero’s welcome as NASA proceeded to send them on a new mission: ambassadors for the space program. They were now going to travel around the world with forced smiles, like obedient trained monkeys.

People have different temperaments and not everyone is comfortable with these kinds of social responsibilities. The pressures ultimately broke this man who had been privileged to experience the fulfillment of his life’s dreams, this historically significant event. In the end Aldrin had a nervous breakdown, brought on by a deep depression, alcoholism and his unresolved inner conflicts. It’s an amazing story with many lessons for us all.

Originally published at
Photo by Ed Newman.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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