Neil Armstrong may have received most of the glory during the pioneering Apollo 11 mission. His “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” line is one of the most notable of the 20th century, after all. But crewmate Buzz Aldrin was just as heroic on that historic voyage. And half a century later, the astronaut opened up about how it feels to be forever known as the second man on the moon.
As anyone old enough to have witnessed the monumental event will remember, Aldrin, Armstrong, and Mike Collins were launched into space in July 1969. The trio departed Earth from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a Saturn V rocket. But, as Aldrin recalled at a 50th-anniversary gala, the initial journey was also a surprisingly smooth one.
Aldrin told the captivated audience at Los Angeles’ Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, “We did not know the instant of leaving the ground. We only knew it from the instruments and voice communications that confirmed liftoff. We looked at each other and thought, ‘We must be on our way.’”
Collins was given the task of manning Columbia – the command module – at the vital moment. On the other hand, his fellow two astronauts reached their lunar destination in the four-legged module that was dubbed Eagle. Unfortunately, though, unlike their launch, Aldrin and Armstrong’s descent to the moon was anything but smooth.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for the quick-thinking of pilot Armstrong, the pair’s module would have crashed into an array of lunar boulders. Thankfully, the computer guidance system directing them there was overrode by the astronaut. Aldrin was responsible for communicating Eagle’s navigation data at the time to mission control.
If that wasn’t enough, Aldrin and Armstrong also had to deal with the blaring alarms that suddenly started ringing out in the Eagle module. These alone could have put pay to the whole mission. Yet, the pair once again managed to overcome the obstacle. In a typical display of understatement, Aldrin admits that he found the sounds just a little distracting.
Referring to their incredibly dramatic descent, Aldrin said, “We knew we were continuing to burn fuel. We knew what we had; then we heard ‘30 seconds left.’ If we ran out of fuel, we knew it would be a hard landing. Then, we saw the shadow cast in front of us. That was new – not something we saw in the simulator.”
In a 2019 video for the London Science Museum, Aldrin reveals that he had to keep quiet during the nerve-wracking situation for Armstrong’s sake. He remembers getting increasingly stressed as the clock ticked down, admitting in the clip, “… I [didn’t] want to disturb Neil by saying, ‘Hurry up, hurry up!’”
Eventually, Aldrin was able to tell mission control down on Earth that at least one of Eagle’s probes had met contact with the moon’s surface. Armstrong added, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” But as Aldrin explains in the Science Museum clip, it was by the narrowest margin possible.
Aldrin recalls, “We touched down. And I think the estimate – not because somebody put a dipstick in the fuel to see how much was left, but it was calculations and information onboard – we probably had about 15 seconds of fuel left.” Yet even then, the intrepid pair weren’t out of the woods.
After putting on their famous spacesuits and depressurizing the Eagle’s cabin, Aldrin and Armstrong initially struggled to get the module’s hatch open. Several frustrating attempts ensued, but somehow the former remained calm. He told Sky at Night magazine in 2020, “We didn’t fly 240,000 miles not to explore the moon.”
Luckily, Aldrin’s refusal to panic eventually reaped its rewards. He added, “I reached down and grabbed the corner of the hatch and flexed it back – there was a hiss of escaping oxygen, and it swung open. You do want to be a little careful about not bending that door, however.”
You might not know that before touching base, the Apollo 11 crew sparked a conspiracy theory about UFOs. During their journey, the trio had asked mission control how close they were to the upper stage rocket. As a result, Aldrin and co. had spotted a light that appeared to be following them. But they didn’t want to alarm anyone by asking explicitly what it was.
Armstrong’s explanation for the mysterious light was the panels that had previously detached from the rocket. However, some theorists believe that something more extra-terrestrial could have been responsible. For his part, Aldrin dismissed these claims as nonsense in a 2016 interview with National Geographic magazine to promote his book: No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon.
Aldrin explained, “We assumed it was public knowledge, and during an interview with the BBC, I went through the whole story. The UFO people back in the United States became very angry with me – for not telling them first! Of course, we knew it wasn’t a UFO. But that doesn’t stop the story from spreading among people who are looking for anything that they can call a cover-up or a UFO.”
In the same interview, Aldrin also confirmed that he’d taken some bread and wine on board to help celebrate Communion in outer space. Yet contrary to rumors, he hadn’t smuggled these items. Instead, Aldrin had been permitted one of his superiors. The only stipulation was that he and Armstrong should refrain from discussing Communion when they reached the moon.
Aldrin expanded, “When the Apollo 8 crew read from Genesis on Christmas Eve, some people complained that, as a government-funded institution, NASA should not be promoting religion. So, it wasn’t until years later that I felt okay about talking about it… Today, my philosophy is more like what Albert Einstein called a cosmic sense of a greater power involved in creating the universe. It’s very nonspecific.”
As you would expect, the three astronauts thought long and hard about such profound matters during their ground-breaking voyage. In his book, Aldrin realizes that he was the only human being alive or dead, not on Earth alongside Armstrong and Collins. But, he told National Geographic, “It certainly didn’t make me feel lonely, except to realize that we were as far away as people had ever been.”
Aldrin added, “Once we were on the surface of the moon, we could look back and see the Earth – a little blue dot in the sky. We are a tiny part of the solar system and the whole universe. The sky was black as could be, and the horizon was so well defined as it curved many miles away from us into space.”
Though when it came to the most pivotal part of the mission, Aldrin only had the job on his mind. He told the 50th-anniversary gala audience, “I sometimes think the three of us missed ‘the big event.’ While we were out there on the moon, the world was growing closer together, right here.”
So, how exactly did Aldrin and Armstrong celebrate when they finally landed on the moon and in one piece? Well, speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the former revealed that they were rather understated. Aldrin said, “[Armstrong] remembers we shook hands, and I recall putting my hand on his shoulder, and we smiled.”
Aldrin also stated that the famous “one step” quote was improvised, adding, “[Armstrong] thought of that. It wasn’t on the checklist.” He then recalled the moment that every aspiring astronaut can only dream of: his first steps on the moon. Aldrin said, “I then got in position to come down… came down the ladder and jumped off – being careful not to lock the door behind me.”
Balancing wasn’t a problem, according to Aldrin, as he conducted various experiments while traversing across the surface of the moon. And he was still able to take in the beauty of his surroundings. At the time, the astronaut described the lunar landscape as “magnificent desolation.” This phrase might not have caught on as much as Armstrong’s, but Aldrin remains proud of it.
In his interview with National Geographic, Aldrin explained, “If I had been the first to go down, I would’ve consulted philosophers or historians to help me come up with the right thing to say. But I wasn’t the first. So I just put together words that came to mind to represent the magnificence of human achievement. Throughout history, we’ve dreamed of the moon and wondered if people would ever go there.”
Aldrin added, “The magnificence of our achievement for humanity was that we were there. But when I looked around, I saw the most desolate sight imaginable. No oxygen, no life, just the lunar surface that hasn’t changed for thousands of years – and the blackness of the sky. It was the most lonely thing I could ever think of. And that’s why I said those words: the magnificence of the achievement and the desolation of where we were.”
Armstrong and Aldrin remain two of only a dozen men to have ever stepped foot on the moon. The latter’s name has always been more synonymous with the impressive feat of the astronaut who did it first. How does Aldrin feel about playing second fiddle to his one-time crewmate, then? Well, the astronaut claims that back in 1969, he thought nothing of it, telling National Geographic, “As the senior crew member, it was appropriate for him to be the first.”
But it’s a different story now. Aldrin freely admits that it’s been hard seeing his role relegated over the following decades. But, he added, “… After years and years of being asked to speak to a group of people and then be introduced as the second man on the moon, it does get a little frustrating.”
Aldrin wondered out loud, “Is it indispensable to point out to the crowd that somebody else was first when we all went through the same training, we all landed at the same time, and all contributed?” This was a fair point, wouldn’t you say? So anyway, he concluded, “… For the rest of my life, I’ll always be identified as the second man to walk on the moon.”
Of course, Aldrin was still showered with plenty of attention in the wake of the historic landing. He recalled, “When I returned from the moon, I became a celebrity, a hero, with ticker-tape parades and speeches. But that’s not really what I looked for or desired.” And he wasn’t the only member of the Aldrin family who struggled to cope with all the increased recognition.
Just like his grandfather and several cousins, Aldrin’s mother tragically committed suicide. The astronaut told National Geographic that she’d previously found the level of interest in his first space mission – Gemini 12 – hard to deal with. For its part, the moon landing only saw her discomfort intensified. Aldrin said, “My older sister and I both concluded that perhaps that, along with other things, caused her to take her life.”
Aldrin himself also came back to Earth with something of a bump. After leaving the world of NASA behind, the astronaut had planned to command cadet role within the Air Force Academy. But being the second man on the moon doesn’t count for much within the U.S. military, and Aldrin was passed over in favor of a former classmate.
Instead, Aldrin was hired as a test pilot school commander. This was even though he hadn’t undergone any test pilot training himself. Yet this sadly didn’t prove to be his calling. He told National Geographic, “I was interested in space, not airplanes. So, after a year, I decided to retire from the Air Force. I’d already left NASA and wasn’t anxious to join some corporation. So, I was not sure what the rest of my life would be like.”
A life consumed by the demon drink was what awaited Aldrin over the following years. His addiction is something the astronaut believes he may have inherited genetically. Aldrin added, “That brought me to consuming alcohol more and more, and, of course, you can’t straighten out something in your head unless you have a clear mind.”
Thankfully, Aldrin has managed to remain sober for nearly four decades. And he has one particular coping mechanism whenever things get a little harsh. The spaceman explained, “If, occasionally, my mind gets the sense that the world around me is not doing what I’d like it to do, I may disappear for a day or even a week. So that’s something I’ve needed to deal with.”
Aldrin’s journey to the moon may have taken place more than 50 years ago. But even in his 90s, the space hero is still dreaming about other missions. And there’s one particular uncharted frontier that’s top of his list: the Red Planet. Aldrin acknowledges that he’s probably too old to witness this happen. Yet he’s still helping to put the wheels in motion. So yes, the astronaut’s legacy is being extended with the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute.
With the help of his son and the Florida Institute of Technology, Aldrin is creating an initiative dubbed Cycling Pathways to Mars. He explained, “First, we will have a low-Earth orbit cycler. The second cycler will be a base at the moon that America designs, but other countries help build and land. Crews will stay there for six months or a year [and] then come back to Earth to start to train as the first crew to land on Mars.”
Aldrin remains confident that the United States will have paved the way for Mars travel within the next 20 years. But pioneering space missions aren’t his only goal. The NASA legend also hopes that his work will help bring together countries that other programs haven’t done before.
Discussing his career in general, Aldrin told National Geographic, “Along the way, I discovered that I could contribute by using my innovation to think outside the box to serve my country better. I took an oath to do that when I was 17 years old, and I’ve continued to be motivated by it – not by financial gain. I’m not driven by what comes back to me.”
How exactly does Aldrin hope to bring unity to the world, then? He explained, “I’ve been spending a lot of time looking for ways to increase our peaceful associations with China – the way we did with the Soviet Union – with a joint mission in space. We can do that with the Chinese and with other nations in an equal, productive way that is even better than the Apollo program.”
Who knows whether Aldrin will live to see his latest efforts come to fruition? But the spaceman seems content with what he’s already achieved. He concluded, “What more meaningful a life could a person ask for? It’s a hectic life, but it’s a tremendous opportunity for me to be of service to other people.”