Buzz Aldrin on Life After The Moon Landing, Settlements on Mars, and Long-Term Sobriety

By John Lavitt 08/02/16

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, celebrating 37 years of sobriety, reflects on his challenges after coming back from the Moon and what difficulties we face in the future of space travel.

Buzz Aldrin On Life After The Moon And Before Mars
Buzz Aldrin hopes for a clear-minded future.

As the Lunar Module pilot in Apollo 11 in 1969, Buzz Aldrin was the second man to set foot on the Moon after Neil Armstrong. Aldrin's first words on the Moon were, "Beautiful view." Then, in response to Armstrong asking, "Isn't it magnificent?” he responded, "Magnificent desolation.” Such desolation later reflected his own inner turmoil upon returning from the lunar mission, a psychic state that led to increasing problems with drinking and depression. A true American hero, Aldrin fought to find a greater role for himself in the years after the Apollo mission. Embracing a path of sobriety over 37 years ago, today Aldrin is an energized visionary, hoping to inspire the world in a joint effort to bring a human settlement to Mars.

I [had] to come back to an Earth where I fit in before, but I [didn't] know how I fit in again. That was really the first challenge.

In 2011, Aldrin received the Congressional Gold Medal. The author of nine books, Aldrin most recently published his children’s book, Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet and his latest best-seller, No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man Who Walked on the Moon, with National Geographic. Since retiring from NASA and the U.S. Air Force, Aldrin refers to himself as a Global Statesman for Space, remaining a tireless advocate for human space exploration. The Fix is honored to have the opportunity to speak with him.

In 2016, you celebrated 37 years of sobriety. Do you consider your sobriety one of the most important things you have been able to accomplish in your life?

I certainly do. It could have had a very disabling influence on the wonderful experiences I have had later. The problems came when I had to face the challenges of not being so comfortable and not being so happy in regards to departing NASA to carry on a career with the Air Force that did not seem so promising. There wasn’t a clear path in front of me with NASA, with the Air Force, with major companies and think tanks. I had not cultivated a path that would help me accomplish what I really wanted to do with my life after NASA. I began to experience the inherited burden from my grandfather perhaps, from my mother and from my father. These negative tendencies involving both alcohol and mental challenges began to control my life more and more. 

Let me give you some more of the history. Before I was born, my maternal grandfather had committed suicide. He was an army chaplain. My father married his daughter, and she was not comfortable with the public attention that came after my first flight in space with Gemini 12 in 1966. Other people did not perceive her discomfort, but my sister and I did. We came to the conclusion that that was enough to push her over the edge. Along with her loneliness and a lack of a strong purpose in life, the public attention contributed to her taking her own life a year before I went to the Moon. 

Eventually, aging caught up with my father, and he died in 1974 at the age of 78. He was born in 1896. Both he and I were trying to figure out what would make a better and clearer path for my future, but we couldn’t agree on what was best. After being a professional pilot and a military officer, he was in business and doing totally different things than what I was doing or wanted to do. I didn’t really understand or agree with what he wanted me to do moving forward. Although sobriety later helped me find my bearing, at this point, it was hard to see it happening. When I did achieve recovery, I was able to define my goals and move forward with those future objectives.

Can you describe in greater detail the discomfort you experienced after returning from the Moon and the role that alcohol played in that equation?

I was beginning to deal with not being comfortable with life after I retired from commanding the test pilot school in the Air Force. I wanted to be the Commandant of Cadets at the Air Force Academy, where I would have been a role model, giving me more overall time to readjust after being away from the Air Force for 11 years in the space program (three and a half at MIT and seven and a half at NASA). Someone else was picked over me for that position while I was given command of the test pilot school. I didn’t understand this choice because they knew that before NASA, I had chosen not to receive test pilot training. I felt there were much more advanced concepts to be addressed and further missions to be considered beyond the present testing and the near future testing of aircraft. I return to the Air Force as a hero and they want me to be a hero, but I also was placed in the awkward position of having to learn a business that I had originally resisted. Now I am suddenly in charge of that business for the Air Force. It proved to be not very satisfying, and so I retired.

I was left alone without any guidance with what to do next and with nobody really to advise me. Such a feeling of being alone was quite familiar. The tendency to drink came out in full force at that time. It was indeed a historical tendency in my family, but it’s also a common trait of military pilots and astronauts. Pilots use the weekend to catch up on the drinking and fun that they miss while working so hard during the week. For ninety percent of those people, it was fine to let loose on the weekend. For people like me, it didn’t help with the depression or the uncertainty. The alcohol, combined with these feelings, made me very unproductive. 

For a role model who had been to the Moon, it was particularly discouraging. You can’t help the mind and your mental health if it is obscured by the temporary mind-altering effects of drugs or alcohol. I realized it had to be dealt with first. It was not immediately successful and it took a little time. It has added up in years and years, and the additional input in the evolving field of mental health has helped. 

Given your firsthand experience, what are some compelling questions that you believe need to be asked in order to help future astronauts?

What is truly compelling for me is the question of the future of mental health for astronauts as they make the most important decision in a human life as a progressive human being. The decision to depart the Earth and become a permanent occupant of another planet is momentous. There’s nothing that compares to that challenge. Nothing could be more disruptive than to have the finest of astronauts make a positive decision, and then be on Mars and change their minds. You do not want to have their mission disrupted by such issues. Whatever the treatments might be, they would be observed by the other crewmen. The negativity could very well spread among them in a very disruptive manner, leading to more problems. 

We are now at the point of the early development of the monitoring of the brain’s total activity through periodic screenings with potable devices that resemble an EEG, but are slightly expanded in their capabilities as well. They result in a complete color mapping of many parts of the brain. Changes can be observed by experts monitoring astronauts for five to ten years or more during their training. This monitoring will be beneficial because it will happen before they make those permanent decisions. Such monitoring will be able to reveal potential disruption in advance. Such a decision must be made years before an actual mission in order to receive the total training needed to be on a crew that not only will land on Mars, but also will stay there. 

Fortunately, there are opportunities that recently have come into my plans to be able to select early astronauts for such a mission: People that were even born in the year 2000. According to my schedule, we could put them on Mars by the time they are 40 years old. In order to accomplish the goal much sooner than that means making a major decision in life before the age of 30. Given the exposure to those conditions, we have to select and perhaps expose potential first-landers between the age of 25 and 35 so that they fully understand the mission. They need to go to the Moon orbit and assist in the assembly of modules to be landed while preparing that base on the Moon. They need to go down and stay on the Moon for some time. Maybe six months before they come back to Earth. Now they would know what Mars is going to be like. Hopefully, they understand most of the situations that can arise, and they have experienced that sense of detachment from people back on Earth. They will be the best-trained crew to accomplish the mission. The Moon will be the hub that will help get us to a permanent place on Mars.

Humanity, the Earth, all of the people will have put billions of dollars into this project to select the very best candidates and the use the very best training to get them ready for this multi-billion dollar project. They will be sent there in the very best way so they can complete the final assembly in 18 months of a permanent base on Mars, and we can see if that is acceptable. If it doesn’t work, they will come back, and we will fix the problems and repeat the effort with a different group of people. If they are successful, they will be the first to land on Mars. Following the first cycles, more crews will come and learn from the first crew that have been making the connections and learning more about what it takes to be there than anybody else. Each crew goes down and becomes a part of a growing team. 

Given the extreme length and technological complexities presented by a Mars mission and potential colony, what problems do you think will be faced by crew members, and how can these problems be resolved?

In terms of the potential challenges, we will have been continually monitoring and monitoring and monitoring the crew members while communicating in private with the flight surgeon about each of them as well. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate that problems will come up. We may have food problems, exercise problems, health problems, and radiation in space to deal with. I think we will come up with acceptable ways to solve these problems, but I do not believe that we have a proven solution yet for the mental health of the crews. They have made such a drastic decision and then executed it without acceptable ways of returning. If such problems come up, like wanting to leave the mission, there is no easy answer for a crew member that wants to return to Earth, except ways that would be very expensive and very disruptive and very counter to the progression of the mission. 

It would not be satisfactory to the crews that would go for a year, two years, five years, and then they have to come back because of such disruptions. If one crew member needs to return, others would be forced to return as well. It would not be as meaningful to the world leader to make a commitment for a nation to lead, and for the world to execute, if the mission could be so disrupted and the plan becomes finite. It is both very expensive and very risky to bring people back. It’s even more risky to bring people back than it is to continually support them where they are with mental health conditioning and psychological advice, and ease of communication with people back here on Earth. 

You have mentioned your role in helping to develop new technologies to help the astronauts overcome future problems being faced. Can you give us an example of one of these technologies and tell us why it is needed?

I was just on the phone speaking with a watchmaker about making a special calendar for people that would be living on Mars. I want to create a watch that will tell them what time it is there and what time it is back on Earth, in any time zone needed. I want the scientist and the flight controller and the families back on Earth to communicate with them even with the great time delay of almost one hour there and back. There is pressure because they want to complete the conversation, but it involves this extended time gap. Scientists realize that that’s too slow. They need to have a whole day’s instructions that are very conservative but always ready to go. If a robot on Mars gets into trouble, the automatic instruction is to stop. We’ll focus on the problem on Earth, we’ll fix it, and some days later we will have a solution and new instructions to communicate to the people on Mars. The key for the Mars crew is to stop and be patient with this method of communication. But this does not always work with people. Such a watch can help them know when such information will be delivered. They will know what time it is all around the world. 

It’s difficult enough for the sun and the day and the night to be different. It is even more difficult when they don’t hear what I say until an hour after I’ve said it. Waiting for answers to any question, no matter how big or small, sounds like a difficulty to me. For example, if you call somebody on a holiday, you might not be able to reach them. You leave a message, and they get back to you an hour or two later. You now also can send an email or a text. Although we have gotten used to delayed conversations here on Earth ever since the telephone and the telegraph, it has gotten worse and worse over time. Our new technologies don’t always seem to be making it any better. We want to make technologies that quicken communication, like an advanced version of Skype that will work better for the people that will be there. My goal is to make it easier for them. If they have disruptions, we don’t want the time delays to add to their difficulties. In addition, the families and the children here need to be made to feel comfortable with such extended missions. We need to have watches for the astronauts that put them in the same time frame as their families. We need their calendars to be in conjunction in terms of the season and what is happening in different places on Earth. That has been a nice challenge for me to think about.

Beyond what you already have told us, can you detail other life lessons you have learned from your experiences going to the Moon and being an astronaut?

In No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man Who Walked on the Moon, I realized from my own experiences how important it is for men, women, and any world citizens living on Mars to be as comfortable as possible. They will face many challenges, and they need to be able to alertly deal with disruptive conditions. I learned the importance of being able to handle such challenges during the Apollo 11 mission. We had a disruptive condition. When coming in from outside and getting ready to go to sleep, I discovered a broken circuit breaker that turned out to be a very critical circuit breaker that controlled the engine arming. It is left out when going to the Moon when we are getting ready to light the engine. 

To land, we had to push the circuit breaker in because it arms the engine. After we land, we pull the circuit breaker out until we get ready to come home. To start the engine again, we push the circuit breaker in and it enables the engine to bring us home. If that is broken and you can’t fix it, the engine will not light, and you will stay on the Moon. That’s not too good, and we didn’t know how to fix it. The people in Houston at Mission Control, however, thought they could fix it. They said, “Go to sleep up there, and we’ll have a solution for you when you awake.” 

Well, that was the plan, but just imagine not knowing if you can get home and trying to go to sleep. It sounds absurd, but I’m telling you, it was not absurd. We knew that we could not do anything else. We have to trust in the system. We’ve been trusting in the system all the time to get us there. We have to go to sleep and see what they have been able to solve when we wake up. Well, they couldn’t fix it, so we had to try to push the circuit breaker in, but not ten seconds before we lift off. We had to do it maybe two hours before and wait. I couldn’t push it with my little finger because there’s electricity in there, and that also meant a metal ballpoint pen wouldn’t work. But there was a felt tip pen that would not conduct electricity, and we used that. It engaged the circuit, and we knew it was working. The question is, how did we know for sure?

Houston could tell it was working from the ground. They said, “Voila! You’re cleared,” or something like that (Laughing). Later, Houston said, "Apollo 11, you're cleared for liftoff." I replied with a lighthearted line that they had given to me and that I never really liked. Still, I decided to say the line because I was a part of the show. I said, “Houston, roger, we’re number one on the runway.” It was absurd because there wasn’t anyone else on the Moon. No Russians or Chinese or aliens. It was just us. The line was more to let the world know that I was not overly excited or nervous. I was confident and capable, ready to push the button and proceed with the mission.

The broken circuit breaker and the felt tip pen are reminders of the life lessons of a man who walked on the Moon and wanted to come back home. Good decisions are based on a program of accepting new solutions while discarding what doesn’t work. Although we were able to make the broken circuit breaker work, a quick fix is not always desirable. It worked for the short term and got us home. In terms of the future, we need to think long-term and focus on the research and development that leads to decisions that truly work. By overcoming adverse influences and focusing on the best people, we can succeed. My life lessons have showed this to be true. My life lessons led directly to me standing next to the American flag on the surface of the Moon.

For your vision of the future to become a reality, what is needed most? How can you help make this vision successful?

We need people. We need people that can predict and realize the changes that we face while also being able to make those changes happen. A good bit of my role is being aware of the overall influences on the future that will happen well beyond my being there. My think tank is focusing on questions like, how did we get where we are and how should we operate in the future? We try to look at the evolution from a macro national perspective that includes all of humanity. Although my individual life lessons help, we need input from many different types of people. Macro questions demand that level of cooperation. We can learn together by employing a complimentary approach.

We need the input of multiple experts who have observed these things and know how to help. I don’t want to tell NASA or Congress what to do. We can use our combined life lessons to point out the good things and the bad things, and how did they happen that way. My objective in life is to be innovative in my thinking and to look at new possibilities outside the box. I believe that is the most valuable contribution I can make to the future.

It seems as if the missions you are discussing will take an enormous effort beyond the resources of any one country. What must happen first in order for such an expensive and complicated mission to truly succeed?

We need to come together as one world, but some nations don’t want to come together until it is to their distinct advantage. We can’t be competing against each other when the stakes are so high. It prevents us from coming together. Not every nation will view the challenge in the same way. Although competition can help during the conception and design phases of the project, it becomes detrimental as the project progresses into the latter stages of completion. We need to get the best plan and the best implementation of that plan. Once that is in place, it should be the beginnings of trust and joint cooperation. By working together as a world, we can achieve this goal.

As a kid, you have said in interviews how much you loved science fiction like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and you even wrote book reports on science fiction novels in school. Considering the difficulties of your childhood, was science fiction a kind of escapism? 

It definitely helped me to think less about girls and sports (Laughing). It was not so much escapism as much as it was a focus of thinking about impossibilities, and what was beyond and what might come along. I wanted to know how we would deal with what is to come. Science fiction was fascinating on that level, challenging the creators to dream of new worlds. As creators in the real world, people need to dream with relaxed, practical and conventional restrictions. For space travel, the biggest question was, how do I get someplace far away very fast without being boring? 

Later, I was motivated first by the realization that for a crew to carry out a mission like Apollo, we needed to understand how to get to the Moon and back. Although Mars is next, the major hurdle after Mars is how to get from one star to another star. I have found that complicated challenges can best be understood, particularly in book form, if you have a five- to eight-year-old child trying to explain the same thing to another five- to eight-year-old child. People can understand complex projects if they are explained in a simple and direct manner. It’s difficult to combine a practical story about what we know today with what we will need to know hundreds of years in the future. At their best, smart creators can accomplish this task when they emphasize very simple and basic ideas. On the Moon and on Mars, there are encyclopedias of advanced knowledge if we are willing to go and find them. It’s like a scavenger hunt to uncover the hidden data and discover what we need for the future.

Last year, you published Return to Earth, a courageous and candid memoir about what happened after the historic Moon landing and your personal struggle with fame and depression. In response to your newfound fame after the Moon landing, you said, “When I returned to Earth I became a celebrity, a hero, with ticker tape parades and speeches, but that's not really what I looked for or desired." What was your response to your newfound fame? 

It actually was written in 1973, when I had just left NASA and the military. I was struggling with what comes next. What was important to me was not the journey to the Moon, but the process of coming back and facing these challenging conditions. Now I have to reestablish myself again. I have to come back to an Earth where I fit in before, but I don’t know how I fit in again. That was really the first challenge.

Later, I began to summarize what I saw by looking into how far we had come and how far we had to go. In the early '90s, I became focused on what’s next. Not just beyond the Moon, but beyond Mars as well. What is the big picture? What would star travel look like and how could it be accomplished? I investigated tourism and adventure travel as well as tragedy and the conflict between nations. My experience helped me to predict what would happen in the Chinese and Russian space programs. I knew where the launch sites would be because they would follow our example and launch on the coasts to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation. By understanding world conditions and by learning the lessons provided by the past, you can begin to predict how people will do things in the future.

In a 2009 interview with the Telegraph, you said, "I have gained so much by facing adversity.” What was the most difficult part of being one of the first men on the Moon? How did facing adversity allow you to grow as a person? 

My choices were focused on future planning, but first I had to readjust and meld into society. I also was looking for opportunities that I could apply my life lessons to and do well. Maybe doing things with the Moon. Maybe doing things with Mars. Maybe doing things with commercial activities, opening the door to tourists in space. Today, I am still going in that direction and refining my role in what I think we need to do. 

There is an irresistible object. That is me. There is an immoveable force. That is the rest of the world. We have to work together to overcome the problems, both in our own country and in the greater world like in Russia and China. There is always a reluctance to change. When you focus on long-term goals, you always end up being resisted by the power of short-term interests. The survival of any one government is not as important as the greater goals of space travel. The people need to understand so they can be behind this project. 

There are so many new technological distractions in the world like video games and driverless cars. People need a simple and direct explanation of why what we want to accomplish is so important both for them and for the world as a whole. It is not about celebrity status or high compensation. I am doing what I am doing so I can carry this broad and comprehensive message to the people. I still want my voice to be heard, and I believe it needs to be heard. I want to be remembered for more than just kicking up moon dust. I want to be remembered for having enabled a permanent Mars settlement.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.