Podcast: Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 at 50
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in discussion with Hugh Hewitt in the Nixon Library East Room on July 23, 2019, as part of ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the astronauts’ return to Earth. (Nixon Foundation)
Buzz Aldrin discussed his formative years and setting foot on the moon.
This special edition of the Nixon Now Podcast features Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in a Nixon Library discussion with Nixon Foundation President and CEO Hugh Hewitt. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the Nixon Foundation presented Aldrin with its “Greatest Comeback Award.” The name of the award signifies President Nixon’s ability to face challenges, always come back from setbacks and achieve victory throughout his life and career.
Aldrin was being honored for his and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts’ remarkable comeback to Earth — that was one for the ages.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
On July 23rd, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began their reentry in the command module from the Moon back to the Earth, splashing down in the South Pacific the following day. President Nixon observed the splash down from the naval vessel, the USS Hornet. He greeted the astronauts and the mobile quarantine unit.
President Nixon: Gee, you look great. Do you feel as good as you look?
Neil Armstrong: Oh, we feel just perfect, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Yeah, yeah? I understand Frank Borman says you’re a little younger, by reason of having going into space. Is that right? Do you feel that way, a little younger?
Michael Collins: We’re a lot younger than Frank Borman, Sir.
Jonathan Movroydis: 50 years later, the Nixon Foundation honored Buzz Aldrin with its greatest comeback award during a dinner at the Nixon Library. The name of the award signifies Nixon’s ability to face challenges, always come back from setbacks and achieve victory throughout his life and career. Aldrin was being honored for his and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts’ remarkable comeback to Earth — that was one for the ages. Ambassador Robert O’Brien, president Trump’s special envoy for hostage affairs and Aldrin’s personal lawyer presented the award. O’Brien remarked that introducing Aldrin was like introducing Christopher Columbus or Meriwether Lewis, except that neither Columbus or Lewis went to the Moon. Nixon Foundation President and CEO Hugh Hewitt was the master of ceremonies and interlocutor in the evening discussion. Hewitt quoted the great Union general during the civil war, Ulysses S. Grant, “I read about few lives of great men because biographers do not, as a rule, tell enough about the formative period of life. What I want to know is what a man did as a boy.” At the beginning of the discussion, the Apollo 11 astronaut was quick to note his real name.
Buzz Aldrin: My name is not Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr. anymore. I legally changed it. It is Buzz.
Hugh Hewitt: Buzz.
Buzz Aldrin: Plain Buzz. Well, certainly, my father’s aviation history is really very admirable and had a great influence. From a Swedish family, he was born in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Hugh Hewitt: Oh, Worcester.
Buzz Aldrin: And he graduated from high school in short pants at 15, went to Clark University there. His physics professor was Robert Goddard.
Jonathan Movroydis: Robert Goddard invented the liquid fueled rocket and ushered in the space age. The senior Eugene was his protégé at Worcester Polytechnic.
Buzz Aldrin: He got a master’s degree from Worcester Polytech, then started at MIT in Cambridge. And this is 1919 now. And he was called into the service, and they wanted to put him in the coast artillery. He said, “No, no, no. Listen, I’m writing my thesis here at MIT on spinning airplanes. You’re going to have to put me in the signal corps.” That’s where the airplanes were then. So his first assignment was to the Philippines as an aid to Billy Mitchell. Come on, explain it to the other people at the table. “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell” was a great movie when I grew up. I don’t want to go into those details. But my father was involved in the formation of the engineering school at McCook Field, Wright Field, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base became the Air Force Institute of Technology. And to just show you how things come around, the Air Force Institute of Technology paid for my doctorate’s degree at MIT.
Jonathan Movroydis: The union between the elder Aldrin and Buzz’s mother, Marion, proved to be serendipitous. Marion’s maiden name says it all.
Buzz Aldrin: When my father was in the Philippines, he ran into an Army chaplain who had two daughters and a son, and he sorta took a fancy to the older daughter. And so they were pretty close. So dad decided to go back to the states and then come back and get married, so that then they could come back and ride elephants…not elephants, but camels around the pyramids. Now, her name was Marion Moon. That’s right, that’s right. And I had an uncle, Bob Moon, and a cousin, Bobby Moon. I don’t know why that happened that way, but it just did.
Jonathan Movroydis: The younger Aldrin was, too, destined for a career in the military. He graduated third in his class from the United States Military Academy. He amusingly tells a story of why he decided to attend West Point rather than the Naval Academy.
Buzz Aldrin: My father had been in the Pacific during World War II, and he kind of came to the conclusion that there were more successful businessmen from the Naval Academy than there were from West Point. So, he wanted me to go to the Naval Academy. And I said, “No, you don’t understand.” We went out deep sea fishing off Maine and I got sick, you know? And besides that, why in the world would I ever want to land an airplane on a ship that’s bouncing around in the water and very short landing strip? No, no, I wanna go to West Point. There wasn’t an Air Force Academy then.
So I enrolled in West Point, almost the youngest, 17 from the youngest in the class, at age 17. This is in 1947, and the Unification Act spread apart the services, so there was the U.S. Air Force. And about that time, they began thinking about a [inaudible 00:07:44] service. So at West Point, I began to put my sights on being able to graduate and enter into the Air Force. Now, big distinction between the wisdom of the Army at West Point and the Navy. At West Point, you get your choice of branch based on merit. Merit is your weighting in military leadership and your academic reading. Now at the Naval Academy, it’s a lottery that tells whether you’re in the submarines, or a battleship, or a minesweeper, or sitting on the ground. Now, this successful businessman…now, at West Point, they teach leadership, leadership of a platoon, second lieutenant, a company first lieutenant, captain, a battalion, then kind of up the line. And your performance is measured by the performance of those underneath you that you’re leading. So it really stresses leadership.
Hugh Hewitt: But you become a pilot, Dr. Aldrin. And Robert O’Brien mentioned this, and I’d like you to expand on it…
Buzz Aldrin: Let me just finish.
Hugh Hewitt: All right.
Buzz Aldrin: Because my father said…or the conclusion is that West Pointers become insurance salesmen, and the Naval Academy people become a successful businessmen. And that’s because at the Naval Academy, your first assignment as an ensign is on a minesweeper or a destroyer. And the captain deals with the sailors, but he has boatswain mates and warrant officers and all sorts of other layers of people. But the ensign doesn’t deal with the sailors that much. His job is to look above the chain of command, above his captain to the higher authority, and he kind of makes friends up there and finds out what is expected of his captain. Now, in the business world, this is called networking.
Jonathan Movroydis: Like many of the astronauts, Aldrin pursued a career in aviation. Though he wasn’t a test pilot like Armstrong and Collins, he also held a distinguished record of service during the Korean War.
Buzz Aldrin: So I had Sam on my wing. Sam had gone through pilot training with me in Florida, Texas, and then Las Vegas where we were learning gunnery training, air to air gunnery, shooting at a target, and then strafing type bombing. So, Sam was flying on my wing, and the leader and his wingmen went one way. And so we were looking to see when these MiGs were gonna start heading north to get back home. And sure enough, there were a couple of them. And so by the time we got behind them, we were maybe, ooh, 2,000 feet behind. And that’s not really close enough to get much of a hit by shooting at them, but you might scare them a little bit if you fire at them. And if they turn, why, then you can begin to intercept them. Well, they didn’t turn, but I was persistent and I kept going. And then I looked at my gas gauge and it’s getting kind of low, so I said, “Hey, Sam, we gotta go home.” So I turned around and headed back south to our base. Looked around, no Sam. “Sam, where are you? Where are you.” “Be right with you.” He was still following them north. This is Sam Johnson, Congressman…
Hugh Hewitt: From Texas?
Buzz Aldrin: …from Texas. Shot down an F-105, six and a half years as a POW in Hanoi Hilton. A distinguished congressman.
Hugh Hewitt: And he was your wingman?
Buzz Aldrin: He was my wingman. So he’s behind me, and I said, “Hey, Sam, I’ll make a circle,” that’s a 360 over Pyongyang, “and maybe you can catch up.” Well, not quite. But we headed to the base, and he had to shut the engine down and glide, and then start the engine up and make a landing. It wasn’t our home base, but it was one a little further north. We get on the ground, got in the telephone to talk to the squadron commander. Man, was he pissed off. Well, the first mate was real easy. We were just looking…well, the guy must’ve been training. And there were two of them down there, just south of the river. So I had a second lieutenant…well, I was the second lieutenant. And so I went down and just gradually closed up on him, easy as could be. Snuck up behind, started shooting. And then I see the canopy comes off and a flash, and the guy ejects. First gun camera film they ever had of a MiG pilot ejecting, and it made “Life Magazine” picture of the week.
Jonathan Movroydis: Aldrin went onto the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study for his doctorate. It wasn’t a PhD he earned, it was an ScD. He makes that distinction. His thesis was titled “Line-of-sight guidance for manned orbital rendezvous.”
Hugh Hewitt: This was not mentioned by Ambassador O’Brien, you graduated third in your class. Mike Pompeo was first in his class. But you then got a PhD, which Mike Pompeo did not get from MIT. Am I right about that?
Buzz Aldrin: Well, actually, you know, it’s an ScD. It’s more technical, the doctorate of science.
Hugh Hewitt: All right, well, I wanna go back before that because you…
Buzz Aldrin: PhD is…
Hugh Hewitt: Is what? PhD is a little lower?
Buzz Aldrin: Well, you give a snow job to the professors, and you get a PhD. That was my specialty at MIT, rendezvous in space.
Hugh Hewitt: That’s your dissertation, isn’t it? That’s your dissertation?
Buzz Aldrin: Yes, yes. And there were two programs that were considered for Apollo. One was a very big rocket, specialized by Wernher von Braun, in Huntsville. And he wanted to build this big rocket. The only trouble is it wouldn’t quite be ready by the time that President Kennedy wanted us to get to the Moon. So he could use two Saturn Vs and put up a big rocket, then put the crew up, join them together to go to the Moon in a very big spacecraft. And this was gonna cost a lot of money, and it took two big rockets. But an engineer from another NASA center, John Houbolt…didn’t know him then, but I sure got to know him later because he sort of became a role model for me. And he’s the one that developed sending two spacecraft together, one up, and would separate, make the landing, then it would come back up and rendezvous with the other spacecraft.
So in 1961 and early ’62, there was this debate going back and forth. And I’m working on my thesis of rendezvous, and I finally finished it up around the end of ’62. And that was about the time that it was decided that lunar orbit rendezvous was gonna be the way we would go to the Moon. I turned in my thesis, but now, we’re gonna do something around the Moon instead of around the Earth. So I picked up my punch cards and changed the gravity of the Earth for the gravity of the Moon. And it worked out fine. So you talk about timing, now, it just happened that what I had evolved in the way of concentric orbit going from one orbit to another in a rather simplified rendezvous came along at just the time that a decision was made that that’s the way we’re gonna go to the Moon.
Jonathan Movroydis: Of the Apollo 11 mission, Aldrin tells a comical story about the decision that went to setting foot on the Moon with Neil Armstrong.
Buzz Aldrin: After landing, the mission planning allowed for two things to happen. One is to have a sleep period, six, eight hours, or to go outside and explore outside. And it could be one or the other. So as a crew, we decided that if we were tired because we had to go around a couple of times before we landed, we didn’t want to have the flight plan say we were going to go out right away because we would have to request Mission Control, if they could let us sleep first. And that would make things sound worse to the public. So being smart astronauts, we decided that the flight plan would have the sleep period first. But if we landed and felt great, we would ask Mission Control, and they knew this, to change the sleep period so we would go outside first. So, that’s what we did.
Now, we came back in… Now, when Neil got down to the bottom of the ladder, we had both decided that we might get tired outside, and the bottom of the ladder was quite a ways from the ground. So we probably ought to jump in one-sixth gravity and see whether we could make it easily. So, Neil got down to the bottom of the ladder, jumped on up to the bottom rung. You don’t really see that in the television, but I, looking out my side window, I can sort of see him doing that. So then I watched him pick up a contingency sample, and then I sent the camera down to him on a clothesline so that when I got down here, he could take my picture while I’m coming down. So I come down the ladder, now I get to the bottom, I jumped down. And now, I’m gonna jump back up again. But I missed. I didn’t jump hard enough. So the bottom rung of the ladder hit my shins. Didn’t hurt, obviously. But Neil had put dust when he stepped up to the bottom rung of the ladder. So, on my shins, you can see little smudges in every picture of me outside. Of course, the next time I made it all the way up.
Hugh Hewitt: I have a question.
Buzz Aldrin: That’s a point at trivia.
Hugh Hewitt: Of course.
Buzz Aldrin: You know, you can’t expect to be a winner every time.
Jonathan Movroydis: The quote, “Houston, we have a problem,” couldn’t have been more applicable to Aldrin and Armstrong before they launched from the lunar module from the Moon to unite with Michael Collins in the command module before they returned home.
Buzz Aldrin: So it’s cold in there, and we’ve got to get ready to sleep. And being the copilot I said to Neil, “I take dibs on the floor.” That it was only one flat place in that whole lander, and that was the floor. So I laid down on the floor, put my head on the right side, that’s where the copilot is. And I kind of looked, we dimmed the light, and I saw in the dust something that just didn’t belong there. It was about that big, black plastic with a little knurl on the end. And those of you who are familiar with circuit breakers, this was the end of a broken circuit breaker lying there on the floor. Uh-oh. I wonder what circuit breaker it is? So I get up and the lights are on, and I looked at the rows. Of course, some of them are out because you don’t want power. You don’t want power on the jettison parachutes. Well, we didn’t have those in the lander, but it’s an example where you don’t want somebody to throw the switch and you have power on. You might jettison the parachutes when you’re on the Moon. That’s not too smart. So, some of them are in and some of them are out. So I look along the rows and here’s some out, here’s some in…oh, here’s one that’s not in and it’s not out. And the label above it says, “engine arm.” Wow. That’s the one that’s out. When you get into it, when you get ready to land, you push it in and you start the engine, you make the landing, you land, you pull it out. Now, you’d do your stuff on the surface, you get ready to go home, you push it in, you lift off, and you go home. Not if it’s broken off on the floor. So, “Houston, you’ve got a problem.” Well, we missed that line. We saved it for Apollo 13.
Hugh Hewitt: Buzz, we have 10 minutes left. I gotta ask about returning. Okay…
Buzz Aldrin: Okay. So they said, “Look, we’re gonna have people look over behind the panels and see if we can find anything. And it may take us a while. So, you guys up there, just go to sleep and we’ll tell you when you wake up.” I thought to myself, what did he say? Here…two guys up here, and we may not get home? And they just said, “Go to sleep. We’ll tell you when you wake up.” Well, what they told us was they couldn’t find any way to fix it. So they said, “What you’re gonna have to do instead of just immediately before the computer is going to turn the engine on, we’ll do that two hours early.”
So now, we get into the countdown, and I looked at my little finger and I figure, now, I could push it in, but there’s electricity back there, and maybe that’s not too smart. But I got a ballpoint pen. Uh-oh, that’s metal. That’s not too smart, either. But I did have a felt tip pen, push it in, and Houston says, “Hey, we got power. Let’s go.” So, in two hours, we go through the countdown, and I know what’s going on in Mission Control. You know, the flight director is checking with everybody there, and they’re each saying to him, his name is Flight, “Go, Flight,” “Go, Flight,” and then he says to the guy who talks to us, he says, “CAPCOM,” or “Go for liftoff.” And the guy who was CAPCOM says, “Tranquility Base, you’re cleared for liftoff.” I’ve been thinking a little bit, “Roger, Houston, we’re number one on the runway.”
Jonathan Movroydis: That was Buzz Aldrin on the 50th anniversary of his and fellow Apollo 11 astronauts’ reentry from the Moon to the Earth on July 23rd, 1969, during ceremonies at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org, or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis, in Yorba Linda.