On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the moon. Today, Aldrin tells what it took for him to get there and what it will take for us to go back there … and beyond.
Those were among the first words I spoke on the moon. They described the magnificence of achievement of our being there and the utter desolation of the place where we had arrived.
All around me was powdery lunar dust, the gray horizon curving away, our blue-and-white home bright in the sky overhead. We were 240,000 miles from home — the farthest anyone had ever been from Earth. As the plaque that we left on the moon reads, we had come in “peace for all mankind” — a truly magnificent achievement.
My mother’s maiden name was Moon, so maybe it was my destiny to walk on its surface. That doesn’t mean it didn’t take a lot of hard work and determination to get there.
My journey to the moon was a long one—both before and after I became an astronaut.
Growing up in Montclair, N.J., I was pretty active. Besides being a Boy Scout, I went to camp in Maine every summer from ages 9 to 16; competed in football, gymnastics, swimming and track; and participated in Congregational Church activities.
My father was an early aviation pioneer, so I was drawn to aviation at a young age. My first airplane ride was at age 2. Later on, I rode in an amphibian airplane that had been christened by Amelia Earhart. We had pictures of aviation pioneers like Earhart in our house, so I felt a close association with them.
And because of my father’s career, I was given opportunities to meet role models who were high-level achievers, such as General Jimmy Doolittle, who later led the first bombing raid of Tokyo, Japan, in World War II. One of my fondest boyhood memories was riding the parachute jump at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. That sounds like a pretty ordinary thing that a lot of kids have done — but I rode it
with Col. A.W. Stephens, who at the time held the world record for hot-air balloon altitude (74,000 feet).
More than anything else, I wanted to be a pilot. So by following my role models’ examples of achievement and exercising the discipline learned through athletics, I prepared for exams for the U.S. service academies. In 1947, I entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (our country’s top college for training Army officers) among the youngest at just 17 years old. I was first in my class in academics and athletics after my first year. I later graduated third in my class, quite a feat.
Then my dream came true when I was commissioned in the Air Force and became a jet fighter pilot. During the Korean War, I flew more than 60 combat missions. After the war, I piloted supersonic F-100 Super Sabre fighter jets.
SHOOTING FOR THE MOON
I then began to focus on another dream. My close friend and fellow pilot Ed White told me about his plans to apply for the new space program. The more I heard about it, the more I wanted to be a part of it. But I knew I would need more than piloting skills to make it into the program.
In 1959, I entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I earned a doctor of science degree in astronautics. My thesis was on manned orbital rendezvous techniques — how to bring together objects in space — which qualified me to be selected in 1963 for the NASA
It was here that I encountered new role models. Among the people in the space program were engineers whose persistence resulted in the strategy of going to the moon. Their persistence inspired me in my own work on space vehicle rendezvous and in my training.
Through all of this, I learned something important: As you walk through life, you should stretch out both arms to gather in as many opportunities as you can. Then take advantage of those most suitable to you — and not all of them will be.
Before leaving West Point, I applied twice for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England. I wasn’t selected. Of course, my career would have been considerably different if I had been, but the point is that you should always try to follow your dreams, even if things don’t work out the way you want them to at the time.
I have practiced this belief all my life, and as a result, I served as an Air Force pilot, became an astronaut — after applying to the program twice — and stood on the moon. Since then, I’ve continued taking advantage of opportunities and have journeyed in a deep-sea submarine to see the Titanic wreck and gone to the North Pole on an ice breaker. And I’m looking forward to a trip to the South Pole in the future.
FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE
You might think I closed the space-exploration chapter of my life when I retired in 1985, but in many ways, it was just beginning. Since then, I have been heavily involved in space-station design and most recently, the design of spacecraft and techniques both for returning to the moon and for manned missions to Mars.
These endeavors are not easy ones. We can’t just build a hotel on the moon and start sending tourists. Space activities require tremendous breakthroughs in energy and are very costly, challenges that helped inspire my Mars-Earth Cycler concept. The system involves a reusable spacecraft that continuously cycles between Earth and Mars in permanent orbits, using much less energy than conventional spacecraft. A system like the Cycler could make Mars a routine destination and even a base where we could live.
When it comes to space travel, it’s important for people all over the world to know that space is not only the next frontier, it is their frontier. With that in mind, in 1998 I launched ShareSpace Foundation, which is working to make space travel available and affordable to everyone.
Its first step is to provide opportunities for different space experiences, ranging from space camp and museum visits to zero-gravity airplane flights to, in a couple of years, suborbital flights and maybe in fewer than 10 years, orbital flights. ShareSpace is also focused on education and calling on former NASA mission participants to promote the importance of space exploration.
I’m a firm believer that much satisfaction in life comes from giving away what you know to someone else. That’s what I’m trying to do with ShareSpace and my continued work with spacecraft design. Service to your country and fellow man — whether in space exploration, the military or even in an organization like the Peace Corps or a profession like teaching — not only helps other people directly, it helps mold the future.