Even in the company of other astronauts, Buzz Aldrin is still the hippest guy in the room. At the 2010 Astronaut Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which took place earlier this month at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Buzz was the Jack Nicholson to NASA’s Oscars. He exuded an effortless cool just by smiling at the crowd, and all eyes were on him even when he wasn’t meant to be the center of attention. The ceremony’s host, Jon Cryer (because when you think of astronauts, you think of the guy who played “Duckie“), perfectly summed up the feelings of pretty much everybody in the audience. “From the moment I arrived,” he said, “it has been all that I can do to keep from saying, ‘So Buzz, when you were like on the Moon and stuff, was it awesome’?”
Of course, Buzz wasn’t the only man to walk on the Moon. There have been eleven others. But he was the second one to do it. And as he once reminded Homer Simpson, “Second comes right after first!” Over the last few months, it seems like Buzz has been everywhere, doing absolutely nothing you’d expect from an 80-year-old legend who’s witnessed magnificent desolation firsthand. He’s rapped about rockets with Snoop Dogg, hosted a WWE Raw wrestling match, stolen scenes from Tina Fey on 30 Rock, and did the Cha-cha-cha on Dancing With the Stars. (A curious side note: He was the second contestant to be voted off Dancing With the Stars this season, which proves that Buzz is nothing if not consistent.) Neil Armstrong may’ve taken a giant leap for mankind, but Buzz tweets and has his own iPhone app.
I met with Buzz prior to the Astronaut Hall of Fame ceremony, at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. We talked in the dining room of his Cocoa Beach hotel, where he’d arrived early for what was only described to me as an “astronaut’s breakfast.” Being alone in his company, I’ll confess that I was hoping for the same thing that anybody in my position would. But no, he didn’t ask me if I wanted to yell at the Moon with him. Instead, he sipped on several glasses of juice (a mix of half orange and half cranberry) and told stories that occasionally rambled, sometimes ending with confusing sentences like “You have to appreciate these things in rotating coordinates.” But you don’t interrupt Buzz Aldrin. For one thing, he once punched a reporter in the face for getting uppity. And also, have you ever walked on the Moon? No? Then why don’t you just shut the fuck up.
Here’s a completely random and perhaps insignificant detail: During our conversation, Buzz had something on his wrist that looked distinctly like a candy bracelet. I fully admit that I’m probably very, very wrong, and the bracelet likely had some significance totally unrelated to candy. But whatever it was, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, and I kept waiting for Buzz to bring the bracelet to his mouth and start nibbling.
Eric Spitznagel: If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a question that I wrote when I was five years old.
Buzz Aldrin: Really? (Laughs.) You’ve been waiting on this one awhile.
My kindergarten teacher had us write letters to astronauts, asking our most burning questions about space travel. I wrote to you, but I assume you never got my letter.
Oh gosh, how long ago was that? I really couldn’t tell you.
So here’s my question: How do you pee and poop in your astronaut suit?
(Laughs.) That has given me an awe for technology. You can be lying on your back in a Mercury capsule, and before technology came along, if you had to go to the bathroom, you’d be lying in a pool of your own urine.
Wasn’t that the first thing you asked when you got the Moon-landing gig? “How am I gonna take a crap?”
We were well skilled in the art of disposal waste. There was such a thing called a “blue bag,” which was kind of messy. There was a stickum on it, and you could stick it around your posterior. For urinating we had an ego-buster, which was like a condom catheter. We were cautioned not to overestimate our size. (Laughs.) Because if the condom was too big, there might be a little leakage.
That doesn’t sound very hygienic. Were you walking around the Moon with a spacesuit filled with wee?
No, no, no. There was a connection to a one-way check valve in your thigh, so you could kind of move around like this (wiggles his leg) and squeeze the urine out into a larger bag that you could then dispose of.
Dispose of when you get back to Earth?
Or on the lunar surface.
On the Moon? So in addition to your footprint, there’s a big bag of your excrement up there?
(Laughs.) Well no, probably not anymore. Sometimes we’d dispose of it during an EVA (extra-vehicular activity), when we were getting rid of a bunch of extra stuff. We did that on Gemini 12. I remember we were headed local horizontal, local vertical, and we opened the hatch and I had three bags worth gripped between my legs,
Three bags of…?
Yeah, yeah. And I just tossed them like this. (Pantomimes throwing bags over his shoulders.) Straight up! Being very familiar with orbital mechanics, I should have realized what I’d just done. I’d put those three bags on a free return trajectory. (Laughs.) Straight back to us!
This is starting to sound like a Farrelly Brothers comedy.
So an orbit later, we looked out the window and there were three bags in a row, heading straight for us.
Did you recognize what they were right away? A couple of years ago you hinted that you might’ve seen a UFO during a space mission. Is it possible you were just looking at floating bags of your own poo?
(Laughs.) No, not at all. They were very close. We could certainly tell what they were.
How’d you and Neil Armstrong decide who’d be the first to walk on the Moon? Did it involve rock-papers-scissors?
No, no, no. Over the years I’ve been compelled to try and make a case for perspective. What is important? Let’s start with Kennedy’s speech. “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” You didn’t hear anything about two men, did you? You didn’t hear anything about walking around on the Moon, did you?
No, but he also didn’t say anything about leaving bags of astronaut poop up there either.
When our crew was announced, I told my wife that I’d just as soon be on a later flight because I didn’t want all the press and all the attention for the rest of my life for being on the first landing. Because that’s all the press seems to care about. “Who was first? Who was on the first landing?” Nobody ever asks who was the seventh person on the Moon.
I think it was David Scott.
The only thing they know is who’s number one and who’s number two. Does anybody know who the last man was?
Well, Eugene wasn’t really the last man. Not the last last. He was the last man to leave the moon in 1972. But I was the first man to leave the moon. And who gives a shit? Right?
(Laughs.) I guess so, sure.
What’s the big significance to that? It’s because we’re driven by gold medals and the Olympics. “How many did gold medals did he get? Put him on the cover of Time magazine!” Nobody cares about the bronze or silver medals. Who put their foot in the Missouri River first, Lewis or Clark? Who cares?!
President Obama gave a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April, promising to increase NASA’s funding by six billion and send astronauts to Mars in the next two decades. Do you believe him?
I do. But what he’s describing is a very leisurely way. He’s talked about getting a bunch of things in the orbit of Mars by… what year did he say again?
Well that’s all well and good. But I want to land on the damn place! And I want to minimize the expense. I want to make sure that when they land, they’ve got a support system. I’m convinced that sending people to Mars is so expensive that if you go once and bring the people back and then go again and bring the people back, we’re eventually going to run out of money. But what if we send people the first time and they don’t come back? What if they stay there?
Then you’ve got a bunch of astronauts on Mars going, “Hello? Can I get a little help here? What the fuck?”
But then we send six more people, and now we’ve got twelve. It’d be between three and four times cheaper to send people there and then leave them there.
Do we tell them that in advance? Or do we just wait and spring it on them after they’ve landed?
Did the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sit around Plymouth Rock waiting for a return trip? They came here to settle. And that’s what we should be doing on Mars. When you go to Mars, you need to have made the decision that you’re there permanently. The more people we have there, the more it can become a sustaining environment. Except for very rare exceptions, the people who go to Mars shouldn’t be coming back. Once you get on the surface, you’re there.
You’re talking about building a colony?
Exactly! Every twenty-six months, there’s a window of going to Mars that may last for about a month or so. It just so happens that there’s an opportunity to put a habitat on Mars in the fall of 2022. So we put a habitat there and you check it out for a year or so, and it’s unmanned. Then in the spring of 2025, I send a crew and they stay for a year and a half, and then I bring them back. I send another crew in ’27 and then I bring them back. I send another crew there in ’29, and they stay. And then in ’31 I send six more people, three to one of the moons of Mars and three directly to Mars, and now I’ve got nine people there. I can add six every twenty-six months.
How long before you show up and declare yourself supreme ruler of Mars?
(Laughs.) No, no, no.
Is anybody in Washington actually listening to you?
They don’t care about the details! All they care about is, “How much does it cost? How many kilotons are you sending? How big is your rocket?”
Seriously? Somebody has actually asked you “How big is your rocket?”
Do we really need these big, gigantic, heavy rockets? What if we launch a rocket that’s empty and its sole purpose is to act as a source of fuel on the Moon? Who should build that? Well, I think the U.S. should build that. But who should send up the propellant? China, India, Europe. We’re going to Mars, we need propellant. And we could buy propellant from them at our moon gas station.
So that’s our pitch to China? “You can be our moon gas station.”
Sure. Why not?
You think that’s enough to entice them? “Our astronauts will buy your space Red Bull and space jerky.” Does China want to be our Apu?
We’ll tell them, “Look, we know more than anybody about lunar stuff. Let’s form an international corporation.” We have proprietary stuff we can share, like robots. But why would we give that away? In space station things, you don’t give things away. You barter. You trade. “You do this and I’ll give you so many space station racks.” We barter with the Chinese, we barter with others. “We’ll help you get to the Moon, but you give us things that help us get to where we want to go.” You know what happens in another ten years?
You’ll be 90?
It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. They’ll be fewer of us around, but like they did with the fortieth anniversary, they’re going to be paying attention to us, and asking things like, “What should we be doing in the future?” Well, it just so happens that the U.S. president who’s in office then is the president who’ll be elected in 2016. And it won’t be Obama. Even if he gets elected in 2012, he’s out of office by 2016 and somebody else will be elected.
Are you running for president? Is that what you’re telling us?
No, no. There may be somebody elected in 2012 who’s term takes him through 2016 and 2020. I have a good plan, a two-phase program to land humans on Mars permanently. So if Obama likes this idea, and he wants to make it a priority, when would be a good time to proclaim it? Well, what do you suppose happens next May 25th? It’s the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech! His “landing a man on the Moon” speech. Wouldn’t that be amazing timing?
Doesn’t all this make you a little wistful? There’s so much space exploration left to be done, and you’re not exactly at prime astronauting age anymore.
I have more fun doing it this way.
You wouldn’t want to be the first guy to walk on Mars? Just to shove it in Armstrong’s face?
The guys who walk on Mars are going to be historic. It’s like, who’s the guy who fell in love with Pocahontas? What’s his name?
You mean from the Disney movie?
Yeah. What was his name? (Laughs.) I’m getting old so I forget these things.
I have no idea. I think it was Mel Gibson.
Whoever it was, he was a British settler. They didn’t have texting and email and all the stuff we have today. The guys who go to Mars and begin to build a colony there are going to be immortalized. It’ll be far more important than a couple of conflicting nations on Earth doing a few stunts in space to try and outdo each one. Sending a couple of guys to the Moon and bringing them back safely? That’s a stunt! That’s not historic.
Well, it’s a little historic.
I don’t think so.
David Copperfield levitating over the Grand Canyon was a stunt. You walking on the Moon was crazy impressive.
It was a stunt. But going to Mars and staying there? That will be impressive!
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)