I have nearly completed a memoir of sorts by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, written in conjunction with Ken Abraham, called Magnificent Desolation: Long Journey Home From The Moon. The title is a bit misleading, as it implies some not-known-about extra drama in the astronaut’s return, when really it refers to the many downs he experienced once his feet were firmly planted on Earth again.
The tale does begin with a brief look at Buzz’s and Neil Armstrong’s touchdown on the lunar surface, assuming I think that the reader is pretty familiar with their near loss of fuel in the lander, and of course that Neil was the first to exit and take “a small step” onto another world. Do not make the mistake of categorizing Buzz as the “second man” though, as he generally eschews this status, probably due to cultural baggage attached to such an assignation. After all, we Americans don’t like to lose!
One finds that the crux of the story deals with behaviors on which many may frown, and particularly alcoholism and two failed marriages. These stemmed from a deep depression that, Buzz speculates, may have been brought about by the actual trip somehow.
Whatever its origin, when an episode (he called it the “blue funk”would hit, he was rendered nearly unable to function.
This part of Buzz’s story effected me very deeply, especially as he struggled to define his life and significance after such a harrowing achievement. Most of us will never walk on the moon, but we can probably identify with the idea of reaching some peak in life and feeling that there’s no way we can best it. He kept trying though, eventually generating interesting ideas about Space travel that he worked into a Science Fiction (“I prefer to call it techno thriller” whatever that means) novel, and doggedly attempting to sell his ideas to the U.S. Congress. Not much of this was taken up, sadly, but he does start to emerge from his downers on the shoulders of a strong woman.
There is even an unexpected climax of sorts in this version of his post-lunar life. A fair warning, don’t talk to him about the possibility that no humans have actually landed on the moon, because he doesn’t want to hear it!
As I read this book, I reflected on another astronaut whose life tangentially influenced mine: that of Ronald Erwin McNair. Born in 1950, Mr. McNair received a Ph.D. in Physics from MIT and became only the second Black astronaut to travel to space. I am a bit surprised not to know the first, but should rectify that after posting. Anyway, McNair was on his second mission aboard Challenger, not the first as I had always thought, when it exploded on January 28, 1986. Everyone knows about that, primarily because of the school teacher who had also gone up. Buzz points out that after that accident, NASA was hesitant about allowing any civilians to get a seat, a point that continued to irk him for the rest of the shuttle’s “life”.
Back to the McNair story though, a program called the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate was created in his honor with the aim of helping underrepresented groups achieve success on the graduate level. I was fortunate to be awarded a spot in this program 15 years ago, and as I’ve probably said before it is that which convinced me to give grad school a second shot.
I remember the nerves of presenting at my first academic conference, and feeling I hardly knew what I was talking about. I had completed a 25 page paper on “Invisibility” among African American males, working under a great mentor. I also remember the fun travel to Georgia, (visiting three Atlanta-area universities) and Knoxville to attend a different conference at the University of Tennessee.
And, after that program, how the grad school offers rolled in. Prestigious institutions such as Duke, Brown, Stanford and UCLA wanted a piece of me, but I wouldn’t bite. It’s not hard to see how I felt that was MY peak. But I now see it as a valuable experience that shaped the backbone in me to let my “nerd” out and be proud of it. Thinking of that and reading Buzz’s story is helping me to finally snap out of my own “blue funk” that still lingered after my recent internship attempt. I’ve got the wheels turning, and think that more excitement is coming soon.