Buzz Aldrin became the second man to walk on the moon during NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission. Beyond that historic moment, Aldrin played a critical behind-the-scenes role in solving some of the thorniest challenges of manned space flight. As the only astronaut with a Ph.D., Aldrin calculated the complex maneuvers for docking two spacecraft in orbit. And his tireless training—including some of the first zero-gravity simulations in a pool—proved that spacewalks were possible.
Buzz Aldrin's Early Life
“Buzz” wasn’t Aldrin’s given name. He was born Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1930, but his nickname was established early. Aldrin’s older sister Fay Ann pronounced “brother” like “buzzer,” and it stuck. The former fighter pilot and astronaut legally changed his name to Buzz in 1988.
Aldrin’s path in life was practically written in the stars. His father was an aviation pioneer himself, a colonel in the Air Force and a onetime student of Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion. Aldrin’s mother didn’t fly airplanes, but her maiden name was Marion Moon.
In high school, Aldrin was not only a straight-A student, he also led Montclair High School’s football team to an undefeated season in 1946. Aldrin’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but Buzz chose the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he majored in mechanical engineering and trained to become a fighter pilot. (The U.S. Air Force Academy didn’t open until 1955.)
Buzz Aldrin: Military Career
After graduating third in his class at West Point, Aldrin joined the Air Force and shipped off to Korea. He flew 66 combat missions in the Korean War behind the controls of a F-86 Sabre jet, with two confirmed kills. Aldrin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, an honor reserved for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight."
After the war, Aldrin remained in the Air Force as a pilot instructor in Nevada and then as a flight commander in Bitburg, Germany. It was in Germany flying the F-100 “Super Sabre”—the first fighter plane capable of breaking the sound barrier—that Aldrin heard about the astronaut training program. His first application was rejected because NASA was only accepting test pilots, not combat pilots.
Buzz Aldrin: Space Flight
But Aldrin wasn’t deterred. A mechanical engineer by training, he was closely following the progress toward manned space flight and knew the challenges. One of the biggest unknowns was how to dock or connect two orbiting spacecraft racing thousands of miles per hour through space, so that’s exactly what Aldrin decided to figure out.
In 1963, Aldrin graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a Ph.D. in astronautics. His doctoral thesis was titled, “Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous,” and contained a blueprint for piloting and docking orbiting spacecraft.
That same year, NASA accepted Aldrin into its third class of astronauts. As the only astronaut with a Ph.D., Buzz earned a second nickname: “Dr. Rendezvous.”
Gemini 12 and an EVA Breakthrough
At NASA, Aldrin went to work on the Gemini program and made his name as the resident rendezvous and docking expert. Aldrin may never have made it into space himself if not for a tragic accident. In 1966, the primary crew of Gemini 9 was killed in a plane crash, bumping Aldrin and his co-pilot James Lovell up the list and securing them a spot on Gemini 12.
While Aldrin waited for his chance to fly, he watched as three other astronauts failed to successfully perform a critical function of the Gemini missions: extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. Once they left the safety of the capsule, the astronauts overheated as they struggled to gain handholds in their stiff space suits. During a nearly disastrous spacewalk attempt on Gemini 9, astronaut Gene Cernan lost 13 pounds in sweat.
NASA and Aldrin were determined not to repeat those failures on Gemini 12. If they didn’t solve the EVA problem, NASA couldn’t proceed with the Apollo program and the moon landing. While NASA engineers busily designed a new water-cooled space suit, Aldrin spent countless hours training for his chance at an EVA.
Since NASA didn’t have its own neutral buoyancy pool yet, Aldrin did most of his underwater training at a private high school in Owings Mills, Maryland. Over and over, day after day, he practiced on a mockup of the Gemini capsule exterior, newly equipped with handholds, footholds and tethers, all designed to Aldrin’s specifications.
On November 11, 1966, Aldrin and Lovell rocketed into space for a four-day, 59-orbit mission. They had two main objectives: dock with an orbiting target called the Agena and conduct a series of spacewalks. The first objective was almost aborted when the docking computer’s tracking system crashed. Luckily, Gemini 12 had a backup “computer” on board—Dr. Buzz Aldrin—who calculated the docking coordinates with a slide rule and a sextant.
As for the spacewalks, all of Aldrin’s training and hard work paid off. He breezed through his EVA objectives and spent a total of five and half hours outside of the craft, a new record.
To the Moon and Back
Because of Aldrin’s stellar performance during the Gemini 12 mission and his unique qualifications as an engineer and pilot, Buzz earned a spot on the historic three-man Apollo 11 mission that finally landed humans on the moon on July 20, 1969.
As mission commander, Neil Armstrong had the honor of being the first human to step foot on the moon. Aldrin, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 11, followed a few minutes later. Standing on the powdery surface, Aldrin radioed back to Houston, “Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation.”
Aldrin and Armstrong spent more than 21 hours on the lunar surface collecting moon rocks and taking photographs. Along with Michael Collins, the command module pilot, the Apollo 11 astronauts returned safely to Earth on July 24 and were hailed as heroes.
Post-Apollo 11 Career
For the next few years, Aldrin struggled to return to normal life. He sank into an alcohol-fueled depression and his marriage dissolved, a dark period that Aldrin detailed in his memoir, Return to Earth.
Thankfully, Aldrin found sobriety and rekindled his passion for space flight. After retiring from NASA and the Air Force in the early 1970s, Buzz returned to his engineering roots designing rockets.
Determined to send people back to the moon and eventually on to Mars, Aldrin came up with a novel technology called the Aldrin Cycler, a gravity-powered space station that would continuously orbit the Earth and slingshot spacecraft to Mars.
Aldrin has been married three times. His first wife was actress Joan Archer, followed by Beverly Zile. He married his current wife, Lois Driggs Cannon, on Valentine's Day in 1988. He has three children and one grandchild.
Throughout his 90s, Aldrin has remained a vocal advocate for manned space flight. And yes, the Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear was named after Buzz Aldrin.
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