Meet Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin
Colonel Buzz Aldrin (AF-Ret), former NASA astronaut, shown with the fliers of the Air Force Thunderbirds after his flight on April 2, 2017. Aldrin was the oldest person to fly with the famed team, and was the second man to set foot on the Moon. Air Force Thunderbirds/U.S. Air Force

You may have heard of Buzz Aldrin as one of the men who first set foot on the Moon in 1969 and runs around the country these days showing off a flashy t-shirt exhorting people to get to Mars. The man under the t-shirt is one of America's best-known astronauts, and a highly colorful and outspoken person who continues to set lifetime records. He is a strong advocate for missions to Mars and travels the country speaking about space exploration in very forceful terms. His interests in exploring the red planet reflects his "go get 'em" attitude about moving forward into the new frontier he helped open up beginning in the 1960s. 

Early Life

Buzz Aldrin was born Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr. on January 20, 1930 in Montclair, New Jersey. The nickname “Buzz” happened when his sisters pronounced brother as buzzer, and he became simply "Buzz". However, it was not until 1988 until Aldrin legally changed his name to Buzz. 

After graduating from Montclair High School, Aldrin went on to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated third in his class with a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering.

After graduation, Aldrin was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and served as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. He flew 66 combat missions flying F-86 Sabres, and is credited with shooting down at least two enemy aircraft.

After the war, Aldrin was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base as an aerial gunnery instructor, and then moved on to become an aide to the dean of faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy for a few years. He later became a flight commander at Bitburg Air Base in Germany, where he flew F-100 Super Sabres, Aldrin returned to the United States to pursue a doctorate in astronautics from MIT. His thesis was titled Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous. 

Life as an Astronaut

After graduate school, Aldrin went to work at the Air Force Space Systems Division in L.A., before ending up at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base (although he was never a test pilot). Not long after that, NASA accepted him as an astronaut candidate, the first one who had a doctorate. That gained him the nickname "Dr. Rendezvous," a reference to the techniques that he developed that would become critical to the future of space exploration.

Before he could go to space, Aldrin (like all other astronauts) had to work in a variety of positions supporting other missions and learning about the new technologies he and his teammates were set to fly. In that role, he served as a member of the back-up crew for the Gemini 9 mission. He also designed an exercise for the capsule to rendezvous with a coordinate in space, after the original task of docking with a target vehicle failed.

After this success, Aldrin was given the command of the Gemini 12 mission. This mission was of vital importance, as it was the last in the series. It served as a test bed for Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). During the flight, Aldrin set the length record for an EVA (5.5 hours), and proved that astronauts could successfully work outside their spacecraft.

Aldrin would not fly another mission until the famed Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. (He did serve as the back-up command module pilot for Apollo 8.) Since he was the command module pilot for Apollo 11, everyone assumed he would be the first person to set foot on the Moon. However, something more practical determined who would be the first to get out and do the honors: how the astronauts were positioned within the module. Aldrin would have to crawl over fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong in order to reach the hatch. So, it worked out that Aldrin followed Armstrong down to the surface on July 20, 1969. As he's mentioned many times, it was a team achievement, and Neil, as the senior member of the crew, was the appropriate one to make that first step.

Life After the Moon Landing

The astronauts returned from the Moon after a 21-hour stay, carrying 46 pounds of moon rocks. Aldrin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed during peacetime. He also received awards and medals from 23 other countries. He retired from the Air Force in 1972 after 21 years of faithful service and also retired from NASA. Despite personal problems and bouts with clinical depression and alcoholism, Aldrin continued to provide insight and expertise to the agency. Among his important contributions are the proposal of having astronauts train under water to better simulate the conditions of space. He also did work on devising a trajectory path between Earth and Mars along which a spacecraft could travel in continuous orbits.

In 1993, Aldrin patented a design for a permanent space station. He is also the founder of a rocket design company called Starcraft Boosters, Inc., as well as a non-profit, ShareSpace, which is dedicated to making space tourism available to all people. Dr. Aldrin has also published several books. In Magnificent Desolation, he recounts his life, including the Apollo missions, the Moon landings and his own personal struggles. In 2016, he co-wrote the book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, with science writer Leonard David. In it, he talks about human missions to the Red Planet and beyond. 

On September 9, 2002, Aldrin was confronted outside a hotel in California by filmmaker Bart Sibrel. Mr. Sibrel is a staunch proponent of the theory that the Apollo program, and the Moon landings themselves, are a hoax. Mr. Sibrel reportedly called Aldrin a “coward, and a liar, and a thief”. Understandably, Dr. Aldrin did not appreciate the comments and punched Mr. Sibrel in the face. The local prosecutor refused to press charges.

Even in his 80s, Dr. Aldrin continues to explore our planet through visits to Antarctica and other remote spots. In April 2017, he was honored to be the oldest astronaut to ride with the legendary Air Force Thunderbirds. He has appeared in such non-space-related events as "Dancing with the Stars" and on the catwalk during New York Fashion Week in 2017, showing off space-themed designs for men. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.