“We landed with all the grace of a freight elevator,” Buzz Aldrin relates in the opening passages of Return to Earth, remembering Command Module Columbia’s abrupt descent into the gravity of the blue planet. With that splash, Aldrin takes readers on a journey through the human side of the space program, as one of the first two men to land on the moon learns to cope with the pressures of his new public persona.
In honest and compelling prose, Aldrin reveals a side of instant fame for which West Point and NASA could never have prepared him. One day a fighter pilot and engineer, the next a cultural hero burdened with the adoration of thousands, Aldrin gives a poignant account of the affair that threatened his marriage, as well as his descent into alcoholism and depression that resulted from trying to be too many things to too many people.
He didn’t realize that when he landed on his home planet his odyssey had just begun. As Aldrin puts it, “I traveled to the moon, but the most significant voyage of my life began when I returned from where no man had been before.”
Return to Earth is a powerful and moving memoir that exposes the stresses suffered by those in the Apollo program and the price Buzz Aldrin paid when he became an American icon.
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About the Author
Unlike most of the others chosen for that role, Aldrin was never a test pilot, but attracted the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with his success in the USAF and his graduate work at MIT. Aldrin flew on Gemini 12, and was selected—along with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins—for Apollo 11, the first mission to the surface of the Moon. Since retiring from NASA, he has done charity work and written numerous books, including Encounter with Tiber (1996), his first science fiction novel.
Wayne Warga (1937–1994) cowrote Return to Earth with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister with Lana Wood. Warga was a correspondent for Life magazine in Cuba and Central America and a prolific entertainment journalist and writer for the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Tonight, and USA Today: On TV. He later wrote the Jeffrey Dean Mysteries: Hardcover (1985), Fatal Impressions (1989), and Singapore Transfer (1991).
Buzz Aldrin (b. 1930) is an American astronaut, and the second person to walk on the Moon. Born in Montclair, New Jersey, he turned down a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in favor of an education at West Point Academy, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. After receiving a commission by the United States Air Force (USAF), Aldrin flew sixty-six combat missions during the Korean War, after which he continued his education at MIT before becoming an astronaut in 1963. Unlike most of the others chosen for that role, Aldrin was never a test pilot, but attracted the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with his success in the USAF and his graduate work at MIT. Aldrin flew on Gemini 12, and was selected—along with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins—for Apollo 11, the first mission to the surface of the Moon. Since retiring from NASA, he has done charity work and written numerous books, including Encounter with Tiber (1996), his first science fiction novel.
Read an Excerpt
Return to Earth
By Buzz Aldrin, Wayne Warga
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Aldrin-Warga Associates
All rights reserved.
There was a jolt as the small drogue chutes opened, rather like a rough landing on a bumpy runway. I took a quick look out the window, then settled back to wait. Minutes later, three bright orange-and-white-striped main chutes opened, jerking us like puppets against our couches, and we slowed down considerably. We were, it seemed, in a state of suspended slow motion.
We floated down through a bank of stratocumulus clouds as big and lush as the ocean they covered. The change was impressive. I had become so accustomed to seeing the starkness of space, where there is no haze and where delineations are quite sharp, that the sensation of looking out on a hazy early morning on earth was a welcome change. I could see the ocean below, and as I looked at it, I sniffed to smell it. Not yet.
The sensation caused by the change of scenery pales beside the sensation of getting used to the fact of weight. For a number of minutes, movement is an effort. Arms, which had floated before, now hung heavily and had to be willed to movement. Legs, which are about as necessary to space travel as an appendix is to a body, stirred to activity by threatening not to function at all.
We landed with all the grace of an old freight elevator. Air Boss had announced to us that the wave height was between three and four feet, but it looked more like thirteen or fourteen. And it felt like it too. Our chutes, tilting in the wind, brought us in at one angle, and the moon, governor of the tides, sent a wave our way from an opposing angle. With an enormous thwack, as jarring as it was noisy, we landed. Before the impact, my hand rested on circuit breakers which, when pushed in, would enable Mike to jettison our chutes. After impact, my hand was jammed painfully down beside me. All of us grunted in distress; I grabbed the circuit breakers and Mike jettisoned the chutes.
The Apollo spacecraft is a marvel of engineering. It is totally life-supporting, a miniplanet containing all facilities necessary for maintaining life. It also floats, whether right side up or upside down. There is no way to determine which way you'll end up after landing, especially in a good wind and a delayed chute jettison.
It brings a smile now, but at the time, it wasn't quite so amusing. There we were, officially taking our position in the history books of mankind, floating upside down in the Pacific Ocean. It was July 24, 1969. The water was dark green and unfriendly, but its mist seeping in smelled good.
We bobbed around for seven minutes, the amount of time it takes the float-bag motors to pump air into the float-bags — three little balloons — which would turn us upright.
"Air Boss, Apollo 11. Everyone okay inside. Our checklist is complete. Awaiting swimmers," Neil radioed.
Air Boss came right on and told us three swimmers were already in the water, and our flotation collar would be attached in less than two minutes.
It was over. No exclamations, no slaps on the back. No handshakes. All that would come later, at least the handshakes. We sat in silence, three men alone together with their private thoughts. The reverie seemed to last much longer than it actually did. I spent most of it convincing myself not to be seasick, and so, it turned out later, did Mike and Neil. It was one thing to land upside down (we got ourselves upright before the world watched us on television), it would be quite another to scramble out of the spacecraft tossing our cookies all over the place.
The flotation collar was fit into place, the hatch flew open and three gray-green biological isolation garments were thrown in. They came from one of the water rescue team men: a navy frogman, also wearing an isolation garment topped by a face mask with a filter on the side of it. He looked weird, right out of Jules Verne. But he still looked like a human being.
The isolation suits were like rubberized flying suits except that the zipper ran diagonally from lower left to upper right. A hood was attached, with a visor and a filter for breathing. You could talk, but the sound was muffled, and you could hear, but the information was garbled. As soon as we had our suits on, we put on Mae West life preservers and crawled out of the spacecraft into the rubber raft bobbing alongside the flotation collar. The suits were supposedly tested and airtight, yet minutes later moisture was seeping in and it was sticky and uncomfortable.
One of the frogmen helped us to stumble into the raft and another was right there with us from then on. Waves started rolling and splashing us, causing the hatch to slam into the head of one of the frogmen. He weaved for a moment as we all moved to catch him, but he recovered quickly and motioned us back down. Another handed us scrubbing cloths and detergent with which we had to thoroughly douse ourselves twice — once with one cleansing substance, the second with another, all to counteract any contamination we might have brought from the moon. One by one we finished and were motioned to the other end of the raft, where we sat down and waited. The cloths we had used to scrub ourselves were tied to weights and dropped into the ocean. It was all conducted as a solemn ritual, as if it had been done through the ages. There were virtually no words spoken, partly because it was difficult to speak and understand through the suits but mostly because four helicopters hovered noisily above us.
I had begun to feel queasy inside the spacecraft, and bobbing around in the raft caused more rumblings in my stomach. I breathed deep; the cool air felt good, even though filtered. I looked about the raft for anything I could, if necessary, improvise into a motion-sickness bag. I had forgotten about the special plastic bag in my pocket. Activity is a great cure for incipient seasickness — I was still looking when I realized I now felt fine. We sat there for what seemed to be an eternity. It was only fifteen minutes, but being idle was distinctly foreign, and I kept glancing up, waiting for the helicopter to start down to pick us up. We communicated by a kind of improvised sign language, and I, for one, wondered how many people were watching us. The aircraft carrier USS Hornet was now in view, less than a quarter of a mile away, and I developed a sudden craving for a razor, shaving cream, and hot water. I wanted to feel presentable even though nobody could tell whether I was or not because of the isolation garment. The president of the United States and a lot of television cameras were waiting on the Hornet.
A Billy Pugh basket appeared from one of the helicopters and began dropping down in our direction. The Billy Pugh basket, named for its inventor, is a practical plastic and metal scooplike object which can literally scoop people right out of the water. I was second up in it, and during the ride, which lasted about two minutes, I had a peculiar feeling of loss. It wasn't until I glanced down that I could understand the feeling. Down in the water was Columbia, our spacecraft: small, compact, and a virtual extension of each of us. Now we were leaving. It had done its work and we had no more use for it. We had shed it, discarded our cocoon. It seemed small and helpless, yet minutes before it had represented safety and security.
I scrambled into the helicopter and the first person I saw was Bill Carpentier, a short, wiry, and humorous doctor from Canada who was a paramedic. If one of us had been injured, he would have jumped directly from the helicopter into the water to treat us. Instead, he was standing in the door smiling, his hand extended in greeting, the first recognizable face from what I would hereafter refer to as "before." We shook hands and he helped me out of the bulky Mae West.
Mike was walking around the inside of the helicopter, stopping now and then to do a deep knee bend and I started around behind him. We were both unsteady, trying to make legs that felt like rubber function on a floor slick with salt water. Neil scrambled in next and grinned when he saw us pacing and bending around. He took a few unsteady steps and sat down, fastening his seat belt. He shot us a glance, a communication which we understood without his speaking. He was giving us Neil Armstrong's rumored philosophy about exercise: "I am allotted just so many heartbeats in a lifetime and I'm not going to use any more than necessary at any time." Since Mike and I were frequent and enthusiastic exercisers, Neil was advising us that we were using up valuable heartbeats.
But I wanted to get my legs working and steady. After all, in a few minutes I would be stepping out of the helicopter to be greeted by the president and I preferred, if at all possible, not to fall on my ass in the process. It seemed a rather undignified possibility.
On the flight to the carrier we continued to exercise. The ride lasted about fifteen minutes and at the end I still felt unsteady, though much improved. We fastened our seat belts to land, and once we touched down on the flight deck and waited for the elevator to take the helicopter below deck, we paced and bent some more.
Just before we left the helicopter we ripped the Apollo 11 insignias off the isolation garments and handed them to the helicopter crew. It was spontaneous and a way of saying thanks.
The helicopter door opened and, with Neil leading, we walked down the ramp. I noticed that Neil instantly gripped the handrail on the stairs and the next thing I knew I was hanging on too.
There was a lack of reality about everything, a kind of euphoric strangeness to all that was going on. The plastic face mask was such that I had no peripheral vision and it tended to fog up slightly. I could hear music from the band but it was somehow delayed.
There was only one opportunity to do anything as we left the helicopter and I suddenly realized that nothing had been planned, nothing rehearsed or discussed as just about every other thing had been. I wanted somehow to convey a greeting and convince whoever was looking on that though we probably looked absurd, we felt just fine, thanks. We waved and walked the short distance along a red carpet to what was officially called the Mobile Quarantine Facility (which was a big mobile home purchased at a trailer show and refitted for our use). John Hirasaki, the engineer in charge of the trailer and the second familiar face from before, held the door. John, Bill Carpentier, and the three of us would remain together in the quarantine trailer until we were in permanent quarters back in Houston.
The first thing we did on board the Hornet in our trailer was lock the doors, close the draw curtains on the windows, and take off the isolation garments. One by one we lined up for a rather hurried set of medical measurements: blood pressure, temperature, respiration, and heart rate. It took just a few minutes and then we headed for the showers. Or rather shower. There was only one, a condition causing momentary dismay, but after eight days, five more minutes didn't hurt much and I waited for my turn.
I did, however, become irritated when I started to dress and found a pair of baggy boxer shorts instead of the jockey shorts I had requested; I had anticipated returning to the amenities of earthbound living and now there was the slight irritation because it wasn't right. Before Bill Carpentier had been deployed for the recovery some ten days before the launch, we had given him the personal items we wanted on board, along with a list of supplies (booze, mostly).
Once shaved and dressed in a loose and comfortable flying suit — with sneakers, not the customary boots — I quickly explored the quarantine home. There was lots of blond wood and the upholstery was predominantly blue. Double-deck bunks lined either side of the long hallway, and there was a pull-man kitchen and conversation area with a table that could be used for eating or work, but opened out into an area for physical examinations. In the bathroom, which was located in the front of the trailer and to one side, there was a window. While Mike and Neil finished dressing, I pulled back the drapery enough to see what was going on outside. I could see that they were constructing a plastic tunnel leading to a larger enclosed area which before long would contain the spacecraft. We were in theHornet's cavernous hangar bay.
The next order of business was a conversation with President Nixon, who had flown halfway around the world for the splashdown. A microphone was rigged up just outside the trailer, close by the main window, and we took our places behind the window and had our first encounter with the priorities of protocol, the president, and the odd construction of trailers. We couldn't look out the window unless we were kneeling or seated, but we figured that the president would understand. We didn't know that the national anthem would be played at the start of the ceremonies and that three astronauts would stand up and present three crotches to the world. Since the zippers could be opened from either end, we had only to glance down to check our flies; this was fortunate because using our hands for a quick check would have been observed by a good part of the television audience. We sat down as soon as possible, checking to be sure we were correctly zipped up.
President Nixon was clearly enthusiastic. He danced a kind of jig when he greeted us through the window and then went on to announce that our safe return concluded the greatest week since creation. It was only a matter of time before he would be reminded that there once was a fellow named Jesus Christ — reminded by editorial writers and cartoonists around the world. Because of my state of mind those first several hours back on earth, I didn't realize what he had said until I read it in a newspaper several days later.
For our part, we had had no time to prepare any remarks; so we kept up a steady flow of "Yes, sir" and "Thank you, sir."
The president also remarked about Mike's mustache, something about its having grown under rather unusual circumstances. The subject of promotions came up, as it invariably and obliquely does after every space flight. Neil was a civilian and I was already a full colonel; so I deferred to Lieutenant Colonel Mike Collins, who not many days later became Colonel Mike Collins.
When it was my turn to speak, I requested a moment of silence to pay tribute to Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White, who had become to us symbols of the sacrifice put into space travel. They had given their lives in a flash fire in the first Apollo spacecraft two years earlier. The moment was observed and the president, after telling us he'd be seeing us soon at the White House, was gone.
There were more medical examinations, one of which was not the most restful activity for guys as tired as we were. One by one we were checked on an ergometer, which looks like an exercycle except that it gets progressively harder to pedal during the eighteen minutes we each rode it with our noses clipped shut and a breathing device in our mouths. The ergometer provides a fairly thorough check of your physical condition at any given moment; it gives a vital clue of the extent of deterioration during a period of weightlessness. The check was repeated twenty-four hours later and the results were that our deterioration was typical and our bodies were returning to normal.
By the time our exams were completed, the president was in the air on his way home and the USS Hornet plus three was steaming toward Honolulu. And John Hirasaki was on his way to the kitchen, reappearing a few minutes later with a tray of glasses and ice, offering us a choice of Scotch, bourbon, or gin. Scotch, with ice and water applied as one applies vermouth to a martini, was what I had. Dinner a few hours later was steak with more of the same liquid refreshment. Nobody drank too much, but everyone slept very well indeed.
Before we had gone to bed for the night, Bill Carpentier had helped us compute a schedule for waking and sleeping. In space we remained on the same time schedule as Houston, and the decision was that the six hours lost by traveling east from Honolulu back to Houston could keep us on schedule — provided we didn't start sleeping late. The next morning we did sleep late and kept right on taking our leisure until we were totally off schedule but more and more rested.
The spacecraft Columbia, looking somewhat the worse for wear with its scars from the heat of reentry and a good dunking, was at our side. After breakfast we left the trailer and went through the plastic tunnel to the spacecraft where, more because of training than necessity at this point, we began straightening things up. We took the boxes of lunar rocks out of the back wall of the spacecraft, and John placed them in a special sterilization mechanism. From there they were put on a plane and flown to Houston.
Excerpted from Return to Earth by Buzz Aldrin, Wayne Warga. Copyright © 1973 Aldrin-Warga Associates. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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- Preview: Encounter with Tiber
- About the Authors