By Mary Alys Cherry
Buzz Aldrin was one of the first two men to step on the eerie surface of the Moon and probably the most brilliant. Yet, for a number of years he felt short changed because he wasn’t No. 1. He just didn’t like being No. 2 at anything. And besides, his mother’s name was Marion Moon.
He almost had the No. 1 slot until a higherup at Johnson Space Center reportedly decided Neil Armstrong would be the better choice for the role of commander, whose job was to safely land the lunar module between the many boulders on the surface of the moon. And, some years later, Buzz let it go and became content with his role.
Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr., now 89, was born on Jan. 20, 1930, at Mountainside Hospital in Glen Ridge, N.Y. His parents lived in neighboring Montclair, N.J.
His father served as an Army aviator during World War I and the assistant commandant of the Army’s test pilot school at McCook Field, Ohio, before becoming an executive at Standard Oil. His nickname, which became his legal first name in 1988, came about as a result of one of his two sisters mispronouncing “brother” as “buzzer,” which the family shortened to “Buzz.”
His sense of competitiveness started when he was a child. He did well in school, maintaining an A average. He played football and was the starting center for Montclair High School’s undefeated 1946 state champion team before attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Aldrin entered West Point in 1947, finishing first in his plebe class. On June 5, 1951, he graduated third in the class of 1951 with a B.S.in Mechanical Engineering, after which he served in the Air Force, shooting down two MIG-15s while flying 66 combat missions during the Korean War and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross,
Soon afterwards he enrolled in Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned his Doctorate of Science in Astronautics, writing his thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous.
When he was selected by NASA in 1963 in the third group of astronauts, Aldrin was the first with a doctorate and became known as “Dr. Rendezvous.” The docking and rendezvous techniques he devised for spacecraft in Earth and lunar orbit became critical to the success of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and are still used today. He pioneered underwater training techniques to simulate spacewalking. In 1966 on the Gemini 12 orbital mission, he set a new EVA record of 5 1⁄2 hours.
An elder at Webster Presbyterian Church, Aldrin privately took communion there in the Sea of Tranquility, becoming the first person to hold a religious ceremony on the Moon.
Upon leaving NASA in 1971, he became commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School but soon retired from the Air Force in 1972, after 21 years of service.
Over the years he has written a number of books. His autobiographies Return to Earth, (1973) and Magnificent Desolation (2009), recount his struggles with clinical depression and alcoholism in the years after leaving NASA. He continued to advocate for space exploration, particularly a human mission to Mars, and developed the Aldrin cycler, a special spacecraft trajectory that makes travel to Mars possible using less time and propellant.
In his book, Men From Earth, he not only gives a vivid account of the dramatic descent into the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, down to the last four seconds, he uses recently declassified documents to show just how close the Soviets were to beating us to the lunar surface while taking readers step by step on the long, arduous journey to get to the moon.
He has been accorded numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and is listed in several Halls of Fame.
In 2018 Aldrin was involved in a legal dispute with two of his children, Andrew and Janice, and former business manager Christina Korp over their claims that he was mentally impaired through dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The situation ended when his children withdrew their petition and he dropped the lawsuit in March 2019, just before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.
Following the 2012 death of his Apollo 11 colleague, Neil Armstrong, Aldrin said that he was “deeply saddened by the passing…I know I am joined by many millions of others from around the world in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew…I had truly hoped that on July 20, 2019, Neil, Mike and I would be standing together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of our moon landing.”
After living for a number of years in the Los Angeles area, he sold his condominium and at last report was living in Satellite Beach, Fla.