Friday, July 19, 2019

Flashback 1999: Just enough space here to squeeze in Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon (NASA)
     Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I'll share here the story that ran last Sunday in the paper on what Chicago was like on July 20, 1969. Until then, I realized that one of those Apollo 11 astronauts who walked on the moon, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, called me on the phone once, or make that twice, responding to an article I had written about the moon missions.

     Buzz Aldrin called this week. Twice. Which was not the amazing part. The amazing part was that I tried to duck the calls, telling his handler that I had just, the day before, talked with the Apollo 8 astronauts, so unfortunately my column's quota for 1960s space nostalgia was used up for the time being.
     Even as I was doing it, as politely as possible, I was watching myself, stunned at how fast the incredible becomes mundane. In a flash.
     If Plato showed up at your door this morning, you would of course be thrilled -- excited that he came in, sat down and talked about the ideal city all morning. Splendid. You serve him coffee on the good china.
     Even more incredible, he shows up again the next day. A life changing experience. Four hours on reality. You videotape it.
     The following day, again with the Plato. He talks about education. You phone up a few friends and tell them to hurry over.
     But by the fourth day—I guarantee it— you'd find yourself waking up and thinking, "I sure hope that Plato guy doesn't show up today. I've got a lot of errands to run."
     That's how people are. Not that I wasn't interested in talking to the second man to step on the moon. But I figured, he's busy, I'm busy, why waste both our time if the conversation isn't going to end up in the newspaper?
     But I took the calls from Aldrin anyway. You sort of have to. That's why those space guys do so well in business. When a fellow who has been to the moon calls, you talk to him, even if he's only promoting his plan to put tourists into space.
     Thank goodness Aldrin wasn't selling vacuum cleaners. We already have six at home -- seriously, six vacuum cleaners, of varying configurations and power, if you count Dustbusters. Don't ask me why, ask the wife. Still, if Aldrin were selling vacuums, we'd have seven.
     Instead, he has a program called ShareSpace. He wants to get the space shuttles privatized, build hotels in space, and start flying "citizen explorers" up to those hotels. There aren't enough rich people who'll pay huge ticket prices for a quick trip to space, so some seats will be apportioned by a kind of lottery; you pay $10 or $20, you get a shot at getting on a flight.
     He talked about it at great length, the way that semi-retired guys who are in the grip of passions will. There would be side benefits.
     "By bringing down the cost of access to space, we open up exploration to much more affordable means," he said. "Once you have spacecraft in orbit, it is relatively easy with low-thrust engines to journey to the moon and to Mars. Recycling reusable spaceships is the key to reducing the cost barrier."
     OK so far -- I wouldn't bet my money on it happening, but then I thought cell phones were a fad. His main purpose seemed to be to get those "citizens" into space for their own good. The science was secondary. Aldrin, who has visited the North Pole and the wreck of the Titanic, sees putting people in space as the next logical development in the adventure travel business.
     I have trouble with that, just as I had trouble with the Apollo 8 astronauts calling the moon landing a political gambit first and a scientific quest a distant second. Did he, I wanted to know, agree with that? That we school kids had been duped into believing humanity was learning something by all this? What good was going to the moon?
     "The value, as I've been trying to tell people, of the space program, of Apollo anyway, was not the rocks that were brought back, but that people were excited about it," he said. "There was a sense of involvement, something that touched them, affected their lives. People remember where they were when there was the landing on the moon. That's an enrichment of people's lives."
     So the whole thing was entertainment? A really, really expensive pageant to get Americans to feel good about themselves and forget for a while the nasty old Soviet Union and that terrible war in Vietnam.
     "I wouldn't want to call it 'entertainment,' " he said. "I would call it participation in historic activities, in events of significance. If you witnessed the Hindenburg airship explode, if you listened to the radio when Pearl Harbor was attacked, these were catastrophic events, major events in history. So many times the news is about adverse events happening, but occasionally there were achievements of great success."
     We went into space to generate good news. Lovely. And now, one of the space pioneers wants to see that every stock trader with $ 50,000 to burn can get an 8-by-10 glossy of himself in a jumpsuit, giving the thumbs up, floating around his hotel lobby, grinning like an idiot.
     Just like that pesky dead philosopher always showing up at your door, there can be too much of a good thing. I think that space travel will lose value once people flock to it as a lark, the same way that mountaineering has lost a lot of its cachet
     And now we're talking about going to Mars. Why bother?
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 6, 1998

Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag (NASA)


  1. There are two reasons to love Buzz Aldrin.
    1. For having the balls to get on top of what would've been the largest non-nuclear explosion, ever, if all went wrong at Pad 39A & then going on to walk on the Moon. As the joke went, everything was built by the low bidder, although it actually wasn't. I watched a news interview with the women who sewed their space suits at Playtex, yeah, that Playtex. It was fascinating how Playtex got the contract, their people showed how they could make the suits flexible & then watch the women sew it on already ancient sewing machines, but not use the motors, but one stitch at a time, so it was perfectly accurate.
    2. For punching out that worthless asshole who went up to him claiming it was all a hoax!

    1. Hope you don't mind my PC objections to your 2 reasons to love Buzz Aldrin:
      1. Persons without balls also showed courage in later trips into orbit, some of whom actually perished in the attempt.
      2. Punching someone as a signal that you strenuously object to their oddball ideas seems not so admirable to me.


    2. Well... this is a quandary. As Tate is one of my faithful and consistent commentators, not to mention a man who has saved the blog from literally hundreds of errors, my inclination is to just delete Clark St.'s rather intemperate retort. HOWEVER, Clark St. too is a generally sensible and valued voice, so I'm loathe to do that. As the referee here, I'd point out that Tate was merely observing 1) women perished in the space program and 2) punching out people is as a rule not the path of the champion. I thought he was rather polite about it, while Clark St. seems to unleashed the dogs of vitriol, all too common in this world. I think "I assume yours have been cut off!" is over the line. We are of different ages, tones and temperaments here, and I'm hoping Clark St. reconsiders that portion of his message. I wasn't particularly thrilled when Aldrin clocked that guy—there are too many loons to start decking them all. But I didn't cry me a river either. Let's all play nice here.

    3. Sorry Neil, but I'm sick of PC anything. It's destroying society. Comedians are attacked for jokes by people that have no sense of humor.
      Two women died in the Challenger explosion, when it was belied to be perfectly safe to fly in the Shuttle. They wore plain blue overalls that day. After the Shuttle returned to service, the crews wore pressure suits for the launch & landings. When the Apollos launched, it was a crapshoot if they would succeed, as no one had ever built a rocket that powerful & they still haven't. The Soviets had a huge rocket for the moon & it exploded the first time they tried to launch it, killing their moon shot dreams!
      And Buzz Aldrin had every right to punch out a total crackpot, who is still peddling his bullshit, there was a huge article in the Daily Fail, oops, I'm mean Mail yesterday where he claims to have even more "evidence" that it was a hoax.
      If I had done something that only 12 people have ever done & that number will stay the same for probably another decade, I'd be angrier than Aldrin.
      After all, over 400,000 people were involved in the Apollo program, from the smallest contractors, to the astronauts & not one has ever said it was a fraud! And all of the whack jobs claiming it's a hoax, use the conveniently dead Stanley Kubrick as the "director" of the hoax!

  2. I hear echoes of my late step-father's dismissing my 9 year old excitement. "We wasted all that money when we have so many problems here on Earth. And for what? Just to say we did it?"
    But the luster soon wore off. As I recall, by the 4th mission, no one was paying attention. Even the networks stopped broadcasting the live liftoff and landings

  3. This was fun reading; hadn’t seen it before.
    Buzz Aldrin rocks (no pun intended).
    I have such respect for him, so whatever he has to offer on the moon mission and space program is worth listening to IMO.
    The bit about Plato had me LOLing. Well done :)

  4. "A rat done bit my sister, Nell, with whitey on the moon..."
    - Gil Scott-Heron

    I don't completely agree with the sentiment but love the spirit of it.

  5. What if he brought his buddy Aristotle along?

    I'm inclined to believe the future, at least in the near term, lies in unmanned space exploration. Cheaper and much less risky. Much to learn yet without putting lives on the line.



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