Breakfast with the FT: Buzz Aldrin from Apollo 11

I see the moon, and the moon sees me
God bless the moon – and god bless me!”

It was scarcely dawn when I set out from West Sussex to meet the second man on the moon. High in the heavens, the world Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin briefly trod with Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 Commander 30 years ago was reduced to the thinnest of crescents, and it was difficult to grasp that the man I was about to have breakfast with had really been there. But if Aldrin has his way, one day we shall all be taking holidays there. And on Mars and beyond, come to that.
But although Aldrin is still the right side of 70, the chances of his returning are as slim as the crescent moon I had just been contemplating. However, when he strolled into the courtyard restaurant at the belle epoque Halcyon Hotel in West London I saw not a veteran astronaut but a sprightly marketeer, better looking and taller than I had imagined, with eyes that twinkled like Venus and a rather catching if slightly flashy blue tie bedecked with stars and moons.
A gold ring depicting a star and moon adorned his finger, and an official gold pin – recognising his historic ride to Tranquility Base with Neil Armstrong in July 1969, and his record breaking space walk (EVA) during the Mercury programme – is pinned to the lapel of his blazer.
I wondered if he ever looked up at the moon and said “Wow – I was there !”
“Sure – it does cross my mind” he said stoically
Once Aldrin was obsessed with going to the moon. These days he prefers to talk about the future than the past, and now seems obsessed with getting tourists into space. So much so that as breakfast proceeded, I could hardly get a word in edgeways. Aldrin wants to be a pioneer in the space tourism industry – and help design and build the rockets to do the job.
“What would you like to eat?” I asked. Aldrin, spectacle-less, perused the menu. He only resorts to specs as a last resort, and even then they are “drug-store magnifying glasses.”
The Halcyon English Breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and caviar – £23 with all the trimmings – seemed an attractive prospect. “That’s a good start” said Buzz. “But who do you think has some inkling of how to approach south of the border huevos rancheros? Do you have a salsa, or anything like that? I love Mexican food. Lois (his second wife) and I live close to Mexico in Los Angeles, and journey down there frequently.
When our waiter suggested an omelette with red chilli – Aldrin perked up, but was at the same time intrigued with the idea of a kipper. “That’s a sardine, sort of? Marinated herring, or something like that? I’m half Swedish, and the Swedes like herrings!” In the end he had both. On the same plate. “This is going to be the wackiest breakfast you’ve ever had” I suggested. He glanced at my bran flakes and said: “But that looks much healthier”!
Seizing the opportunity of the natural break in the conversation, I tried to ask Aldrin about how much the Challenger accident had damaged the prospects of space tourism.
“Where would we be……” I started, but Buzz was off again.
“I just want to ask you a quick question” I said, but he buzzed on as if I hadn’t said a word…..“We’re working with John Glenn to get him to contribute some of his time to be a role model.”
The kipper and omelette arrived, and were placed next to the purple tulips. “The kipper’s very nice” he said. “And the omelette is great – it has a good bit of spiciness to it”
Being a keen student of things lunar, and seeking to impress my breakfast companion, I just happened to have my Rand McNally map of the moon with me. Indeed, I had spilt coffee on the Hercynian Mountains while I was waiting for Aldrin to join me. And I had noticed, with a thrill, a major crater called Arnold. But where were Aldrin, Armstrong or Collins ?
“There are three craters named after us” said Aldrin, “but they’re so small they wouldn’t show. They’re in the vicinity of our landing site. But of course anything on the nearside of any appreciable size has already been named. So our craters had to be very small. There are a number of ones on the other side but they’re all named after Russians, because they sent a satellite with a camera first.
This being breakfast, there was question of alcohol, of course, but he would have refused alcohol had we been lunching. He says he has not drunk for 20 years following a battle with alcoholism after returning from the Moon.
“It’s a question of readjusting to a non-focused existence” he said.
“And that was coupled, I think with a genetic pre-disposition that exhibited its traits in my parents that moved me towards alcoholism which finally I was then able to identify. And then in a very difficult re-adjusting struggle I had to overcome that, so I have 20 years of sobriety now.”
If Aldrin were ever to return to the moon, this would presumably prevent a repeat of the touching do-it-yourself religious service he carried out. “I was very conscious of the significance of the landing, the responsibility of doing the appropriate thing. I asked people to pause for a moment and give thanks in their own way. I had brought with me, wrapped in appropriate plastic sealing, fire-proof and everything, a little silver chalice, and a little bit of white wine and a wafer. So I opened those things up and served myself communion.”
“Was it Californian wine?”
“I have no idea. But if I were to do it again, that would convey an erroneous signal to those other people that I shared the recovery with. And anyway I guess my spirituality has moved beyond identifying with the particular rituals that might be identified with one part of religious thinking more than others.
The Muslims don’t serve communion, and the Buddhists don’t. What I feel about spirituality now is something which over-rides all of those, including Christianity.”
In any case, Aldrin expresses little desire to return to the Moon. “You know it’s very hard to tread a fine line without falling off either side.
Either what I’m doing now – pursuing flights for private citizens, opening up space tourism – either I want to fly and that’s why I’m doing it, or if I don’t fly then it’s ‘Buzz doesn’t want to fly again.’
“Anyone who’s flown in space would like to experience that again. But the structure will not reach back into the early pioneering days again. Because they did it once, they certainly have no need to ever do that again. Just because they flew John Glenn on this flight they don’t want to start a precedent where they want all the early people to say: “Hey – how about me too?”
“John Glenn’s flight in the Shuttle was the rewarding of an American hero who flew in orbit first for us – a one time opportunity to re-fly somebody from the early days – we’ll fly him again, they said. It’s a symbol. And it was a symbol very well received by the American people because they recognised that if John can fly then why can’t other people. I think it inspired a number of people who want to fly in space – and that that helps us commercialise, helps us advertise and promote it: that’s not done in the space programme because it’s a government run operation. But as soon as we can ease that away into the private sector, operating the shuttle, then we can open the door to good taste, high value promoting of products and start taking some of the money that goes into doing that.”
Rather than for ever being feted as the pilot who took mankind to the surface of the moon for the first time, Aldrin, it seems, would rather be celebrated as “the visionary who projected and became Mr Tourism in Space. Kind of bizarre, people say, what are you talking about, space tourism? Well, its no longer a giggle factor. It is becoming serious. Now – I think I’ve probably worked these kippers to the bone.”

© Arnie Wilson