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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

Buzz Off

A reflection on Buzz Aldrin on the occasion of MIT+150 seminar on the future of exploration.

It was a symposium dedicated to the future but it kept getting hijacked by the past. MIT+150 “The Future of Exploration” was part of the university’s sesquicentennial, a celebration of previous accomplishments that, it was asserted, would be surpassed by the dazzling achievements to come. But every time Buzz Aldrin entered the room all eyes turned to him.

He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He had a presence no one else commanded. Other Apollo astronauts had sought to keep their lunar landings from transforming them into faux celebrities and absorbing the rest of their lives. Neil Armstrong taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Frank Borman became CEO of Eastern Airlines. But Buzz Aldrin wanted nothing more than to relive that moment and be remembered for it. He reveled in the hype. He wore glittering rings and a sparkling bracelet that caught the limelight. His face remained craggy, his white hair swept back in leonine splendor. He conceded nothing to anyone else. It was like watching the astronaut equivalent to a sequined Elvis performing at Las Vegas.

Yet if the past sustained him, it also burdened him. He was 81. His back was bad, and his hips creaky, forcing him to move by wheelchair. His left arm was in a sling. His speeches wandered beyond their allotted minutes. He conceded nothing to such infirmities. He was wheeled to his stage chair before the audience arrived, so they would not see his creeping frailties. When his time arrived, he spurned an offered cane and strode to the podium unassisted. Neither did he cede anything to false modesty. He was a hero. If fate had been a little fairer, he, not Armstrong, would have first stepped foot on the Moon. He would be in the history books when the others would be nothing more than an overlooked citation in an endnote or another faceless member in an academic symposium. He was a living action figure, the prototype for Buzz Lightyear.

A panel of MIT graduates-turned-astronauts – all specialists on the space shuttle – spoke of their experiences and answered the inevitable question, How do you become an astronaut?, by emphasizing the need to be a team player. Buzz said nothing. At one point he took a call on his Blackberry in obvious disdain. Asked if he would like to go to Mars, he said, Yes, but added that he probably couldn’t stand a crew’s company for as long as the voyage would take. Symposium organizers later affirmed that some former astronauts had refused to join the event because they didn’t want to share a stage with the Buzz Aldrin road show in which Buzz Aldrin played his favorite role, Buzz Aldrin. He was the only participant to appear on two panels. It was a bravura performance, though one that would likely wear quickly if viewed often.

Yet despite the glitter, an ego that bordered on megalomania, the theatrics that hovered between clownishness and defiance, there was a sense of substance behind the mask. His career was real – the fighter jock with a hundred missions in the Korean War, the MIT PhD who had worked out the mechanics of space rendezvous, the flight of Apollo 11. A crusty, irreducible individualism endured. Before the audience arrived for the first panel, having moved from wheelchair to padded stage chair, Aldrin reached for a bottle of water on the coffee table in front of him. With his left arm in a sling, he was unable to open it, yet refused to ask for help, and managed to wrest the top off by clenching it in his teeth while he twisted the bottle with his good arm.

As the proceedings demonstrated, the future of exploration surely belongs to the robots as the future of society belongs to the suits and team players. It’s hard, however, to imagine a Mars orbiter or a rover wrenching the packaging off a new battery by using its mechanical mouth out of sheer cussedness.

Steve Pyne
April, 2011
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