Life Lessons from Legendary Astronaut Buzz Aldrin (INTERVIEW)

The space legend shares some wisdom about navigating life (here and on Mars) and making the world a better place along the way.
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Buzz Aldrin Photo Courtesy of Buzz Aldrin

Legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin recently released a new memoir "No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon." (Photo: Courtesy Buzz Aldrin)

“The moon’s an arrant thief,” William Shakespeare wrote in Timon of Athens four centuries ago, “and her pale fire, she snatches from the sun.” Nearly 50 years ago, a young Air Force veteran from suburban New Jersey donned NASA’s newly pressed NASA uniform for pilots, took a 240,000 miles joyride, then pressed his piggies upon the moon’s selenic surface, basking in her purloined light.

If Buzz Aldrin had stayed home in the summer of ’69, he might have joined other earthlings in protest of United States engagement in the Vietnam war, or gotten stoned and drenched at Woodstock, or held his breath through the harrowing Manson murders and investigation, or met the charming, furry flops of Sesame Street making their TV debut on PBS. Instead, Aldrin reached for the universe’s most privileged vista, a view afforded at the time only by Apollo 11’s celestial perch, then took a stroll – only the second human being to do so – about the lunar surface. His words? “Beautiful view…”

What else could he say, really? On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin was, literally, on top of the world. 

It’s been almost half a century since the 86-year-old Aldrin took those giant steps, as Sting once crooned, and coming down’s been more than half the story. A string of fractured marriages, heavyweight bouts with alcoholism and depression, and a U.S. space program that buckled then burst on a world stage suddenly preoccupied with presidential scandals, roiling nuclear threats, savage international combat, civil rights activism, and energy crunches left Aldrin a man not only without a country, but a universe too. In other words, the mythmaking for Aldrin and his fellow Apollo explorers took light years to kick in. 

Then a funny thing happened. Aldrin sobered up, positioned himself as a space exploration activist in Washington DC, established a nonprofit organization for youth with sky high ambitions, and became the poster boy for good old-fashioned American quixoticism, a latter-day Icarus who managed to reinforce his waxed wings, spread them wide, and take new flight. Aldrin, in short order, became a pop culture totem, ubiquitous, a reminder that America was once merely a faint promise whispered by those who dreamed of more in desperate times, a lost people who became found only through impossible voyages that led to better homes. 

Buzz Aldrin No Dream Too High Book Cover Courtesy Buzz Aldrin

(Photo: Courtesy Buzz Aldrin)

After two decades of mainstream appearances (The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory, Dancing with the Stars, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, not to mention several bestselling books and bragging rights that Toy Story’s heroic space explorer Buzz Lightyear is actually his namesake), Aldrin now dreams of Mars. His recently published memoir, No Dream Is Too High, is a galvanizing, energetic, inspiring tome, unflinchingly cataloguing the astronaut’s darkest hours and fiercest victories, unfurling hard-earned life lessons, and urging one and all to, you know, reach for the moon. Even if you miss, the saying goes, you’ll land amongst the stars. Buzz Aldrin knows that’s true. 

As a full-time, single father to three sons, thank you for the wisdom and life lessons available in No Dream Is Too High. 

Well, I just tried to put an optimistic light on experiences that I've had and focus them a little bit, hoping I can maybe help people a little bit. It’s certainly been helpful to me, writing this book, looking back at my life, uncovering some of the principles for a good life, how to handle success and how to handle not-success (laughs); there’s been a little of both in my life. I’m still out here, alive and kicking and trying to make the universe a better place – even if I’m not the real Buzz anymore. 

Oh, even Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear would defer to you, sir. You are the real Buzz. 

That’s very kind of you. I’ve just spent the last couple of decades thinking about my experiences and my education and my innovative nature and trying to come up with a plan that will really serve where our country is right now. 

Part of crafting a good plan is in looking unflinchingly at where we’ve been. You’re very candid in the book about the less flattering aspects of your biography, then showing us how we might better manage those hours in our own lives. 

I think it’s all about resilience. Resilience is what humans have and resilience is what humans need to take advantage of — their ability to explore and to understand and then to react positively and with motivation, not as a defeatist, to the constant flow of challenges. Negativity doesn’t get anybody anywhere. It takes reacting to all of life in a positive way to make the most out of what you’ve experienced and to make a better life and a better world. 

What are some keys to living life on the sunnier side of the street?

Well, be optimistic! (Laughs) Take a good, long, honest, positive look at what good can come out of every situation you’re in. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. You’re there with it. This is your history you’re living right now. So do what you can to make the most of what comes along. And please, don’t try to do everything on your own. There are a lot of people out there in the universe who wish you well and want to be your friend. Let them help you. You don’t have to carry it all on your own. 

Often times, we can become more “expert” in that way – by allowing into our journey people with expertise we lack. 

That’s right! Let people help you share their experiences because when they share their experiences with you, they get the benefit out of doing that. That's so important for us to realize: by telling someone else what our experience has been, you’re reinforcing your own positivity or recovery or your best survival. All of that, it really helps.  

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon Courtesy NASA

Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. (Photo: Courtesy NASA)

The author Kurt Vonnegut was adamant about that. He believed, wholeheartedly, that we are here on Earth to look after each other, to share and connect and serve. 

Well, those are good sentiments, certainly. If we were all to see what were really possible or if enough of us would look at how clearly the path to these things is available to us now or if we could just reach a little higher to our highest potential, the world could get so much better so quickly. That all comes down to serving each other. That’s a truism: if you want to hold onto something, you’ve got to give it away. That’s what I’m trying to do with the book – give it away, all of these experiences. 

Let’s travel back in time for a moment. Your father was friends with great “skyscrapers” like Charles Lindbergh and Orville Wright. Was it always fated that Buzz Aldrin would one day fly close to the sun too? 

Well, you can get poetic if you want to. You can say it was all meant to be and tell a poetic tale. But I think human beings are meant to be inquisitive. We’re meant to be achievers, friendly competitors. I’m always up for a race. I’m always ready to see who can get there first. I like to test my endurance. That’s sort of what life is – an endurance test with some lovely roses along the track. Was it fated that I’d one day go to the moon? I don’t know. The possibility that someone would go to the moon has always been there. I just took that possibility and made it happen. 

When did the explorer in your truly awaken? I grew up in the handful of years after you’d already taken those historic steps, which meant my friends and I could dream a little more concretely about the things in heaven and earth beyond our philosophies. What philosophies and which people inspired you along the way?  

Growing up, I think I limited my wonders to what was practically sought after. When I was just a kid, I don’t think I was looking up at the moon and trying to figure out how to build a ladder to the stars. I know that at summer camp in Maine, looking from one end of the lake, not real long, maybe a half-mile, there was the roof of the forest, and then there was this one tree that stood out over everything else, over the mountaintop. This one big tree, way off in the distance. And some friends and me, we were determined one summer at camp to go find that tree. We eventually figured that if we climbed the tallest mountain nearby, we could probably get a better look at where we should be going. So we did that and when we got to the top, you can probably guess, we couldn’t find that tree. All the trees looked the same height when we were looking down at them! We never did find the tree, but I learned that you have to look at the world from where you’re coming from and sometimes it helps to change your location. Either way, you have to really try to understand what you’re looking at. 

Perspective is everything, isn’t it?

Well, it gives you an impression — sometimes good, sometimes not so good.

Buzz Aldrin Photo Courtesy NASA

Buzz Aldrin poses for a NASA publicity shot. (Photo: Courtesy NASA)

“Sometimes good, sometimes not so good . . .” That sums up your feelings about the state of space exploration these days, doesn’t it? You’ve been passionately rallying the troops for a space shot that would allow human beings the opportunity of walking on Mars by 2040. How’s that coming along? 

I think for a lot of people, Mars is just too far away. The moon, everybody sees it up in the sky every single night. It’s reachable. It’s approachable. Mars is a little different, so there’s some resistance from many sectors in the community. The technology is there, I have to say; you can do the fly-by of the moon, swing yourself from the moon to Mars, circle it a few times, step off, look around, swing yourself back to the moon, then slingshot yourself back to Earth. Not easy exactly, but possible. That’s pretty neat. 

“Swinging” is a verb fairly new to the layperson’s vocabulary, in terms of space exploration.

It’s a matter of propulsion. You sort of bounce off of one thing to the other, or slingshot yourself, basically. If you swing by a celestial body, you can get off or you can keep swinging and get to Mars, for example. It’s all part of what’s called a Cycling Spacecraft, and it’s amazing! It really works. I’m not sure why people didn’t start out thinking along these lines. The Cycling Spacecraft uses a gravity assist to go out, out, out, then further out into the solar system. It creates a “Free Return Trajectory,” which is very useful. The spacecraft isn’t built for multiple round-trips. It’s not like a school bus or a passenger jet. You get into it, it flings you out into space, you bounce around the stars for a while, then you can swing your way back home. I learned all of this in 1985. It’s what shifted my thinking from going back to the moon and heading to Mars instead. I’m waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to me. 

You’ve not minced words about the importance of colonizing Mars. What’s behind that urgency?

It’s a practical matter. We’ve been on Earth for a long time. Eventually, we’ll need to go somewhere else. Mars looks like a good spot, don’t you think?

I happen to love the color red, so yes sir, Mars looks good!

So let’s make it happen!