Here in the middle of London Olympics fever it’s easy for me to identify my favourite moment from the Games & I’m afraid it isn’t sport related. It was 2 August when my goddaughter Olivia & I went along to Soho House for an audience with Buzz Aldrin – yes that Buzz Aldrin – second man to walk on the moon & one of only 9 human beings still alive who have walked on the surface of our closest space neighbour. And let’s face it – he’s the one we’re all familiar with as only one decent photograph was taken of poor Neil Armstrong on the moon.
To say we were excited doesn’t even come close. Walking there I told Olivia the story of watching the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969 as a child. My sister had already told her the same story many times. As children we (with tens or even hundreds of millions of others) watched Apollo 11 blast off and felt we were there every step of the way with the 3 astronauts as they sped towards the Moon.
When it was near time to land, we were horrified to find that landing time was way after our bedtime but our dad promised us faithfully he would wake us in time to watch it live & he was true to his word. He woke us up at 3.30am & carried us both downstairs wrapped up in blankets. It’s something I’ll be eternally grateful to him for as those 8 days still go down as one of the most exciting periods of my life, even now over 40 years later.
I’m lucky enough to meet a lot of unusual & interesting people in the course of my work and life but I never thought I’d get to meet Buzz Aldrin in a million years. To see him so vibrant & fresh at the age of 82 and with his adventurous spirit intact was a complete joy. Anyway – enough old chat – here’s some of the interesting (to me anyway!) things he said on the day:
- When asked why he wore his Omega Speedmaster on the Moon’s surface he said that it had been a personal gift from his government & being a watch man, he elected to strap it onto his wrist. He did however go on to comment that when on the surface of the moon, the ability to know the local time in Houston, Texas was not that pressing. He got a bit of a laugh with that comment.
- On coping with fear he was very clear. He said that unforeseen events can happen to anyone at any time but especially in combat situations (he was of course a decorated fighter pilot before becoming an astronaut). His advice (maybe easier said than done for many people) is to stay calm & save your energy for when something happens & you need to do something about it.
- He constantly reminded us that the Apollo missions had been a team effort involving hundreds of thousands of people all working towards a shared goal. In terms of the USA putting a man on the moon, the goal was one publicly declared by the leader (JFK) and his specific order was that it was to take place before the end of the decade. In 1963 everyone thought the goal was impossible but nevertheless “no-one was interested in failing” – what a priceless attitude.
- His mother’s maiden name was Marion Moon. I thought that was pretty weird – it isn’t that common a name.
- He was given exactly the same name as his father at birth – Edwin Eugene Aldrin – and as a result was known as “Junior” when he was a child although his sisters called him Buzz. He finally formally changed his name to Buzz in 1988 (quite an American thing to do I thought – but loveable – how awful to have the same name as one of your parents). (I can say that with some authority…)
- He’s passionate about STEM & talked about its importance in the school curriculum not once but twice. He commented how disappointed he is that the US government does not, in his opinion, invest anything like enough money and attention into encouraging young students to study STEM subjects. It’s the same in the UK.
- Despite having a degree in aeronautics from MIT he wasn’t accepted onto the space programme the first time he applied as he hadn’t trained as a jet pilot; he persevered & once in the programme, was known to his peers as “Dr Rendezvous” because of his thesis work on “orbital space rendezvous”.
- He was the first astronaut to use his experience as a scuba diver to train underwater; he went on to train others in these techniques (he showed us a recent photograph of him swimming with a whale shark in the Galapagos & advised us not to try this as it’s dangerous – the man’s 82! He recently visited the site of the Titanic in a French submarine and he’s been to the North Pole in the last couple of years).
- He wears a ring on his right hand in the shape of a planet and a crescent moon – you can see it in this photo – and check out his tie whilst you’re looking.
- He was last man to board the command module and says he watched the sun rise as he climbed the gantry on 16 July 1969 and as he climbed, he reflected upon how wonderful his life had been; when he left the Eagle to begin his descent onto the Moon’s surface he closed the hatch over but didn’t shut it completely – I love that.
- Being an engineer he loves computers (and his iPhone) but said that computers can make us lazy about reading books and he’s nervous that pretty soon a lot of people won’t know even the basics about how things (like cars for example) work.
The last of his quotes that I’ll leave you with is my favourite. When asked what was the strangest thing he’d seen or felt in space he said “You know, when you’re on the Moon pretty much everything is unusual”. Love it.
Thanks Buzz for being a complete inspiration all of my life and for being better in real life than I dared you would be. Thanks to Alex Donaldson and Isabella Macpherson of Arts Co for squeezing Olivia & me onto the packed guest list and thanks to Ben Cackett of the Mayor of London’s office for organising such an amazing cultural programme to run in parallel to the London Olympic Games 2012 and for being such a wonderful host over the past two weeks.
Also – if you get an invite to a party at Soho House accept it at once. It’s the coolest party venue in London and probably in the world. Olivia & I believe it really is “Through the Looking Glass” & that footman on the front door really is a White Rabbit. We checked the white flowers everywhere to see if they’d been painted…
Folks – there’s a lot more I didn’t write because it would have made the blog too long but if you ask questions in the comments I’ll do my best to answer them. Buzz Aldrin answered 15 questions from the audience and he answered them thoughtfully & with considered & coherent lengthy answers plus I have a lot of notes.