Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

I’ve read other memoirs by the Apollo astronauts who went to the Moon, most of whom wrote about their tremendous efforts to become space jocks and their stories always peaked with their lunar adventures.  Buzz Aldrin second autobiographical book starts with the Apollo 11 landing and quickly wraps that adventure up, because his book is about the second half of his life, the forty years of life after being a famous man who landed on the Moon.  Aldrin had an exciting first half of life before becoming the “second” man to walk on another world.  He went to West Point, flew jet fighters in the Korean War, got a PhD at MIT, became a NASA astronaut and blasted into orbit on the Gemini 12 space mission, getting to do one of the early space walks.


So after coming home from the Moon and spending a year touring the world and being famous, Buzz Aldrin had a tough second act to follow his first.  His book chronicles his decline into depression and alcoholism, and it’s not a pretty story.  The real magic of his life appears to be recovering from his early success and starting over, especially his amazing luck of finding Lois Driggs Cannon, his third wife who helped him rediscover a purpose in life that has carried him forward these last twenty plus years.  It’s the Buzz Aldrin 2.0 that I find the most fascinating.

Of all the Apollo astronauts, Buzz Aldrin is the only one that has stayed in the limelight making a career campaigning for space exploration.  This is the tragic part of Magnificent Desolation, and maybe not one Buzz intended to portray.  Aldrin is completely gung-ho on space travel – the trouble is the rest of the world isn’t ready to follow his lead.  Why have we never left low-Earth orbit since 1972?  It took less than 10 years to get to the Moon starting from scratch, but with all the fantastic technology we have today, we can’t seem to get back to the Moon, much less go further.  Why?  Well, it’s not for Buzz’s heroic effort in trying.

I believe the portion of the population who are space travel true believers is so small that they don’t have the political critical mass to make Aldrin’s dream come true.  I’m not even sure 1/10th of 1 percent of the world’s population, or 7 million people are space advocates.  The Planetary Society doesn’t state how many members it has, but I’m guessing it’s in the low hundred thousands range.  The National Space Society, is even smaller.  In other words, the core group of humanity that seriously wants for humans to live in space is probably another magnitude smaller, 1/100th of 1 percent, or 700,000, and probably much less.

Buzz Aldrin has a tremendous uphill battle to convince the world to spend the money on manned missions to the Moon and Mars when only .01 percent of the population really cares.  Even if you add in all the the heavy duty science fiction fans, I doubt the number grows beyond .1 percent of the population.

Aldrin has hitched his star to the space tourism philosophy, which I have never bought.  Magnificent Desolation is current through late 2008 or early 2009, so Buzz reports on all his friends in the private space exploration business, the people who keep the dream alive, but it’s like what Aldrin states in the book, it only takes a rocket going 2,000 mph to achieve sub-orbital success, but it would take a spacecraft going 17,000 mph to make orbit. 

Can private space programs launch that kind of leap in technology?  We know the minimum required, an Atlas rocket like John Glenn road to fame.  The minimum to get to the Moon is a Saturn 5 – can anyone really imagine a private company funding that kind of expense?  If there’s a better way to space don’t you think someone would have found it in the last forty years?  Rocket technology seems to be the sole technology for heaving people off Earth.  Many space advocates campaign for the space elevator, but that technology is far more fantastic than real.

I grew up with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts – they were my childhood heroes.  I thought NASA was blazing a trail to a future where science fiction would become real, but that hasn’t happened.  We have the technology to colonize the Moon and Mars now, and we have pioneers who are ready to go, we just don’t have the patrons to pay their way to the stars.  Buzz Aldrin still dreams the dream, and so do I, and a lot of other space enthusiasts, but I don’t think there’s enough of us to make a political or financial difference.

The only force that inspires the tax payers of America to send missions beyond low-Earth orbit is international politics.  We went to the Moon because of the Russians.  I believe President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration and the plans for Project Constellation in 2005 because China, Japan and India were making their own plans to send their citizens to the Moon.  However, President Bush’s vision didn’t impassion America like John F. Kennedy did in 1961. 

I think most Americans feel “been there, done that” and don’t see the point of returning to the Moon.  Even the majority of science fiction fans don’t pine for new missions to the final frontier.  For forty years we’ve been great at planning new manned space exploration, but no country or company is willing to spend the big bucks.  Space travel still excites and inspires legions of kids, but most somehow lose the dream as they get older because the political climate never seems to change.

Buzz Aldrin could have called his book Magnificent Ambitions, because space travel true believers feel that spawning a branch of humanity that lives off Earth and eventually colonizes other worlds in this system before moving on to other stellar systems is the ultimate purpose of our species.  I think many of us space travel true believers have been depressed, like Buzz, since the success of the Apollo Moon landings because the United States didn’t go on to greater missions. 

The phrase “to infinity and beyond” was the funny rallying cry of Buzz Lightyear, a cartoon character, but that’s how space travel believers feel.  The fascinating question about the 21st century is whether or not the rest of humanity will take up the challenge.  I don’t think the political leaders of China, India and Japan are space travel true believers.  Since 1945 there have been two spectacular ways for a nation to prove they are great – exploding an atomic bomb or developing a space program.  Nationalism isn’t a good force for long term space patronage because citizens eventually feel such wealth should be spent on programs closer to home.

JWH – 11/20/9  

One thought on “Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin”

  1. Kudos to Aldrin for continuing to bang the drum and not letting the reality of today’s political and economic climate stop him from promoting the dream. Its sad to think that all it would take is for a country like say, Iran, to begin making inroads into space and it would scare the country into putting money and effort into space again. That is probably an oversimplification, and maybe today’s “sophisticated” viewer isn’t as likely to fall into a widespread panic the way the Soviet Union’s efforts back in the cold war days spurred the country to back our space efforts, but I believe there is at least some truth there. I know that I continue to be excited about the things I hear on NPR that are going on with the Mars missions and other things but so much more could be happening right now and it is sad that it isn’t.

    I am one of those “naive” people who do believe that there is enough money out there to meet the needs here on earth as well as fund space exploration, etc. If there was not so much waste and the government was more responsible with spending I believe this could be done without raising taxes and without some sort of socialized reallocation of wealth. I’m not naive enough to believe this will happen though, and so I wait to see what, if anything, will put space back into the forefront of the thoughts and ambitions of Americans.

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