“If our minds can conceive of it, the possibility exists that we can do it.”
- Buzz Aldrin
“…there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time…Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority…Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”
- from the diaries of Robert Falcon Scott (1912)
Priority, in the sense of getting there first, is a shifting ambiguous thing, often open to interpretation and dispute. Amundsen made it to the South Pole ahead of Scott but it is Scott’s heroics that continue to capture the public imagination, echoing across the decades, the plight and ultimate fate of the doomed polar party somehow more compelling than the clinical triumph of the Norwegians. Darwin is credited with the conceptual breakthrough now universally known as the theory of evolution but there is much to suggest that he simply beat a rival (Alfred Russel Wallace) into print. So does it really matter who leaves the first footprints on terra nova, physically or intellectually? Those who come after are often as important as those who went first, and they can sometimes leave bigger footsteps.
Pete Conrad not only followed Neil, Michael and Buzz to the Moon (after gaining his astronaut wings on the Gemini 5 mission) but also played a key role in the Skylab programme. During the initial expedition to America’s first space station, Conrad performed a truly heroic spacewalk to free a trapped solar array. Had it not been for Conrad’s efforts (which might be paraphrased as “how to kick-start as space station”), the whole Skylab project might have come to a premature end.
Neil Armstrong will always be the “First Citizen of the Moon,” as we have described him in Odyssey recently; Neil was the first to walk on the Moon but the photo which most people believe captures this moment – the famous visor shot – is actually of Buzz Aldrin. Of the two astronauts Buzz is perhaps easier to understand and relate to; his past battles with depression and addictive illness invite empathy and understanding. Whereas Armstrong resembles (to a degree) the cypher-like astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Buzz is perhaps more akin to passionate eco-astronaut played by Bruce Dern in Silent Running. And as Brian Blessed recently pointed out in his lecture at the BIS, Buzz is not above entering the fray to defend his achievements; he can be seen on YouTube delivering a well-deserved blow to a member of the dim and deluded sect which doubts the veracity of the Moon landings.
Buzz was a friend of Arthur Clarke for many years, and it was Arthur who wrote the forward to Buzz’s SF novel, Encounter with Tiber. The novel (written in 1996 with co-author John Barnes) features spacecraft that use the solar wind to reach velocities close to the speed of light. As Buzz explained in his biography: “The futuristic spaceships I envisioned…were actually based on the science as we understood it at the time. My storyline in “Tiber” was what I liked to call science-fact-fiction, incorporating full appreciation for the physical laws of the universe, combined with a healthy dose of imagination.”1
And as Arthur remarked in his introduction to the novel: “There was a time when we science fiction writers had space all to ourselves and could do just what we liked with it. Not anymore…People like Buzz have been there, and can tell us exactly where we went wrong. And now, to add insult to injury, they’re writing science fiction themselves. Even worse, it’s darn good science fiction.”
Buzz has been a member of the BIS in the past and has supported BIS events, as we remember in this post, the latest in our series of articles entitled From the BIS Archives. I hope Buzz will one day re-join the BIS. We need his guiding footsteps – the ones he continues to leaves on the Earth are at least as important as those he left on the Moon.
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian
1. Magnificent Desolation – the Long Journey Home from the Moon, Buzz Aldrin and Ken Abraham (2009)