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Monday, January 10, 2011

Reading List: Magnificent Desolation

Aldrin, Buzz. Magnificent Desolation. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4088-0416-2.
What do you do with the rest of your life when you were one of the first two humans to land on the Moon before you celebrated your fortieth birthday? This relentlessly candid autobiography answers that question for Buzz Aldrin (please don't write to chastise me for misstating his name: while born as Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., he legally changed his name to Buzz Aldrin in 1979). Life after the Moon was not easy for Aldrin. While NASA trained their astronauts for every imaginable in-flight contingency, they prepared them in no way for their celebrity after the mission was accomplished, and detail-oriented engineers were suddenly thrust into the public sphere, sent as goodwill ambassadors around the world with little or no concern for the effects upon their careers or family lives.

All of this was not easy for Aldrin, and in this book he chronicles his marriages (3), divorces (2), battles against depression and alcoholism, search for a post-Apollo career, which included commanding the U.S. Air Force test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, writing novels, serving as a corporate board member, and selling Cadillacs. In the latter part of the book he describes his recent efforts to promote space tourism, develop affordable private sector access to space, and design an architecture which will permit exploration and exploitation of the resources of the Moon, Mars and beyond with budgets well below those of the Apollo era.

This book did not work for me. Buzz Aldrin has lived an extraordinary life: he developed the techniques for orbital rendezvous used to this day in space missions, pioneered underwater neutral buoyancy training for spacewalks then performed the first completely successful extra-vehicular activity on Gemini 12, demonstrating that astronauts can do useful work in the void, and was the second man to set foot on the Moon. But all of this is completely covered in the first three chapters, and then we have 19 more chapters describing his life after the Moon. While I'm sure it's fascinating if you've lived though it yourself, it isn't necessarily all that interesting to other people. Aldrin comes across as, and admits to being, self-centred, and this is much in evidence here. His adventures, ups, downs, triumphs, and disappointments in the post-Apollo era are those that many experience in their own lives, and I don't find them compelling to read just because the author landed on the Moon forty years ago.

Buzz Aldrin is not just an American hero, but a hero of the human species: he was there when the first naked apes reached out and set foot upon another celestial body (hear what he heard in his headphones during the landing). His life after that epochal event has been a life well-lived, and his efforts to open the high frontier to ordinary citizens are to be commended. This book is his recapitulation of his life so far, but I must confess I found the post-Apollo narrative tedious. But then, they wouldn't call him Buzz if there wasn't a buzz there! Buzz is 80 years old and envisions living another 20 or so. Works for me: I'm around 60, so that gives me 40 or so to work with. Given any remotely sane space policy, Buzz could be the first man to set foot on Mars in the next 15 years, and Lois could be the first woman. Maybe I and the love of my life will be among the crew to deliver them their supplies and the essential weasels for their planetary colonisation project.

A U.S. edition is available.

Posted at January 10, 2011 01:53