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The moon landing wasn’t about Armstrong or Aldrin; it was about us. Fifty years on, the two men who took those first steps are extensions of us, partly real, partly imagined
Norman Mailer once wrote of Neil Armstrong that he was “as much a spirit as a man,” “of all the astronauts the man nearest to being saintly.”
This was gleaned from a press conference Armstrong gave with his fellow Apollo 11 crew members, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, on July 5, 1969, less than two weeks before the launch of the spaceflight that first put humans on the moon.
Armstrong was “extraordinarily remote,” Mailer wrote. “Something particularly innocent or subtly sinister was in the gentle remote air. If he had been a young boy selling subscriptions at the door, one grandmother might have warned her granddaughter never to let him in the house; another would have commented, ‘That boy will go very far.’ He was apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to unravel.”
It seems unlikely that Armstrong, who described himself as a “white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” would have recognized much of himself in this description from Mailer’s book, Of a Fire on the Moon, first published as a three-part series in Life magazine shortly after the moon landing. But then, he never gave anybody very much to go on.
If Mailer imagined the version of Armstrong that best suited him, he wasn’t alone. As soon as Armstrong took that first step onto the dusty surface of the moon 50 years ago, his identity ceased to be his alone and came to belong in part to all of us, to sculpt and mould as we saw fit. Last year, the biopic First Man, lauded for its accuracy and attention to detail, conjured up a scene in which Armstrong left on the moon a bracelet belonging to his daughter Karen, lost to cancer at two years old. Cinematically, it was the right decision, a way to give emotional depth to a man who revealed almost nothing of himself. There’s little evidence it really happened.
Until his death in 2012, Armstrong was who we needed him to be — a hero, unimpeachable, inscrutable, wary of the limelight, an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing. But if the moon landing is a story about all of us, about what it takes to push the bounds of human achievement, and what it costs, it owes as much to Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon, as it does to Armstrong.
First Man devotes little time to Aldrin, the engineer with a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once referred to in Life magazine as “the best scientific mind in space.” In one of the few scenes that gives any sense of the man, the film shows him fielding reporters’ questions with ease, talking about the mementos he planned to take with him into space when all Armstrong would say was that he’d like to take more fuel.
Mailer, drawing a comparison with Armstrong, referred to Aldrin as “all meat and stone,” with “a physical presence which was bigger than his bulk.”
Aldrin, now 89, has sought public attention in a way Armstrong never did. While it took decades for Armstrong to authorize a biography — First Man, the inspiration for the 2018 biopic, was published in 2005 — Aldrin has co-authored multiple autobiographies, the first published in 1973. He has appeared on the Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock and Da Ali G Show, participated in skits on late-night comedy shows and voiced animated versions of himself on the Simpsons and Futurama. Armstrong rarely gave interviews.
Still, Aldrin did not immediately embrace the spotlight after his return to Earth, and struggled with the pressure to perform as the public face of one of America’s greatest achievements. “I wanted to say something profound, something meaningful,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography, Magnificent Desolation, named for the words he uttered after stepping onto the moon’s surface 40 years earlier. “But I was an engineer, not a poet; as much as I grappled with the quintessential questions of life, questions of origin, purpose, and meaning… I found no adequate words to express what I had experienced. Yet I recognized that people wanted me to provide them with some cosmic interpretation gleaned from the lunar landing.”
Armstrong, the flight commander, told his biographer that the most important thing was landing the lunar module safely on the moon, rather than walking on its surface, and seemed most comfortable discussing the technical aspects of the mission. But Aldrin, the lunar module pilot, later said that as he stood on the moon, he was nearly overwhelmed by the “indescribable feeling of proximity” to the millions of people watching him, coupled with the knowledge that they were “farther away from home than two human beings had ever been.”
After the success of the first moon landing, Aldrin struggled to find a new sense of purpose. He sank into depression and a battle with alcoholism that lasted nearly a decade. At a particularly low point, he was working as a car salesman at a Cadillac dealership in Beverly Hills.
Predictably, inevitably, he grappled with being the second man on the moon. In his autobiography, Aldrin insists he hadn’t especially wanted to be first, and that it made sense for Armstrong to step out of the lunar module before him because he stood closer to the exit. Armstrong’s biography tells a different story, of a lobbying campaign by Aldrin to be first and an internal decision that Armstrong, “reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic,” was the better choice.
In Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin describes telling two different psychiatrists about “always being known as the second man to walk on the moon, and continually being reminded of that fact.” To some extent, it clearly grates on him still. He recently told the National Geographic that being forever introduced as the second man on the moon gets “a little frustrating.”
For all of Armstrong’s quiet valour, the story of the first moon landing is made immeasurably more compelling by Aldrin’s foibles and insight and vulnerability. Armstrong may have been “as much a spirit as a man,” but Aldrin is beautifully, recognizably human.
At a House congressional committee in 1997, part of his ongoing effort to drum up interest in getting humans to Mars, Aldrin spoke about what he saw as the value of the first moon landing. “In the last 27 years, one thing has stood out that, as I meet people, they want me to know where they were when we were on the moon, and they remember vividly that particular day,” he said. “It’s not the value of the rocks that we brought back, or the great poetic statements that we all uttered. Those things aren’t remembered. It’s that people witnessed that event.”
The moon landing, after all, wasn’t about Armstrong or Aldrin; it was about us. Fifty years on, the two men who took those first steps are extensions of us, partly real, partly imagined: the stoic, unknowable commander and the brilliant, flawed pilot.
If Armstrong showed us what we should aspire to be, it was Aldrin who showed us who we are.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
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