Buzz Aldrin: The Academic Astronaut

Buzz Aldrin Source: Getty Images

Standing on the moon on July 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin (Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr.) felt as if he were on top of a colossal ball: The horizon appeared to be curving away from him only a few kilometers away. He wasn’t afraid, but he did worry that he wouldn’t be able to complete all the planned experiments on time. Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had a lot to do in just over two hours on the surface of the moon: set up a laser reflector, collect kilograms of rock samples, take photos, and perform seismic and solar wind investigations.

Dr. Rendezvous

Among the three Apollo 11 astronauts, Aldrin was the academic one. The 39-year-old was so obsessed with details that he was sometimes called “egghead” at NASA or—in reference to his doctoral dissertation—Dr. Rendezvous, which sounds nicer than it was meant.

Buzz Aldrin learned to overcome obstacles from an early age. His father, himself an officer, urged him to attend the Naval Academy. But the son wanted to enroll at the Military Academy at West Point. This was partly because he was impressed by his sister’s boyfriend, a West Point cadet who was pictured on the cover of LIFE magazine. That sister also gave him his nickname, Buzz, which he later adopted as his legal name, when she kept calling him “buzzer” instead of “brother.”

After graduating from West Point, Aldrin joined the Air Force in 1951 and became a fighter pilot, flying 66 combat missions in the Korean War, which he barely survived. Several years later he served as a flight commander at US bases in Germany. Aldrin patrolled the border with the Eastern Block, preparing for a nuclearized World War III.

Buzz Aldrin Source: Getty Images

Doctoral thesis as ticket to the Moon

Aldrin’s attention turned from the skies to the stars in October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 satellite into the Earth’s orbit and its signal could be received worldwide, firing the starting gun for the space race. He enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study aerospace engineering, while worrying that he had missed his chance to be an astronaut. At the time, NASA was only recruiting experienced test pilots, and being a fighter pilot was not enough to become an astronaut. To increase his chances, Aldrin wrote his doctoral thesis on a hot topic at the space agency: How could two spaceships rendezvous, or connect to each other out in space? He dedicated his thesis to “the crew members of this country’s present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!”

He was accepted by NASA the second time he applied. Aldrin joined the space program in 1963 as its first astronaut with a PhD, spending 289 hours and 53 minutes—a little over 12 days—in space over the next 8 years. Although he was lampooned as “Dr. Rendezvous,” his theoretical knowledge proved helpful over and over again in planning the precarious maneuvers in outer space.

Buzz Aldrin Source: NASA

From Moon to Mars

He briefly headed the US Air Force Test Pilot School in California in 1971, where he regularly clashed with his superiors. Like his mother, Aldrin suffered from depression and began to drink. He retired in 1972 after 21 years of service. Although Aldrin conquered his alcohol addiction, he remained a headstrong and often enigmatic person to those close to him. He lashed out when conspiracy theorists asked him to swear on the Bible that he actually went to the moon.

Aldrin wrote books, filed patents, founded a company, and started a foundation. He is still involved in space exploration to this day: Aldrin is campaigning for a manned mission to Mars and recently shared some hopeful remarks in a speech at George Washington University, “A flight [to Mars] could be cruising past Venus by 2024.”