Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin
As a child living in Indian Harbor Beach, Florida, I was able to watch many of the Apollo launches from the roof of my parents house. Apollo 11 and the first moon landing, the pinnacle of the space race with the Soviets, is obviously a milestone for mankind. And Buzz Aldrin was there, recording it and his life after in this memoir (which we got signed, at his appearance at the Houston Museum of Natural Science). The book is logically four parts: Apollo 11, Aldrin’s downward spiral afterward, his recovery with his new wife Lois, and what he has been doing since.
The first three chapters record Aldrin’s thoughts and actions through the journey to, walk on, and return from the moon as a part of the historic Apollo 11 mission with Armstrong and Collins. Those first 58 pages are excellent, a terrific description of an event millions watched, but from the perspective of the second (but most visible) man to step on the moon.
Then I saw it – the shadow of one of the three footpads that had touched the surface. Although our engine was still running and the Eagle was hovering, a probe had touched the surface. “Contact light,” I said. Neil and I looked at each other with a stolen glance of relieft and immense satisfaction. The LM settled gently and we stopped moving. After flying for more than four days, it was a strange sensation to be suddenly stationary. “Shutdown,” I heard Neil say.
“Okay, engine stopped,” I answered.
It was 4:17pm (EDT) on July 20, 1969, and we had less that twenty seconds worth of fuel remaining, but we were on the moon.
And where does one go after being a part of the first manned trip to another celestial body? The next part of the book documents Aldrin’s own “desolation”, his spiral into depression, alcoholism and two divorces. He goes from being commander at the Air Force Test Pilot school to selling Cadillacs in the space of a few years. Then he meets his wife to be Lois, who helps him in his recovery and allows him to start pushing forward his ideas on different rocket designs, space tourism and potential plans for a trip to Mars (including descriptions of Aldrin’s Mars cycler design).
This is a difficult book to write; like Mr. Aldrin’s life, what can top the trip of a lifetime, walking on the moon? After that, everything else is downhill, and so it is with the non-Apollo chapters of the book. His forthright way of announcing his battles with depression and eventually alcoholism are well documented, as is his firm belief that his wife saved his life by pulling him out of it. The last part of the book is discouraging, as the reader comes to realize/remember that proposals to go to Mars have been on the table for decades, and we are not much closer to getting there now than we were then, and that the U.S. may be falling behind in this version of the space race. Aldrin does point out that private industry should and probably will lead the way, gaining revenue from space tourism.