Buzz Aldrin, astronaut, turns 88

Buzz Aldrin, formerly Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr, was born on 20 January 1930. This month the engineer, fighter pilot, and astronaut will celebrate his 88th birthday, which is the perfect opportunity to take a look back at his incredible life, his extensive career, and how in 1969 he came to be the second man to step foot on the Moon. Aldrin was born in New Jersey into what he describes as an “aviation family”. His father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and was the first to inspire Buzz with the desire to break free from gravity and to explore the skies. His iconic nickname came about in his early years because the younger of his two sisters mispronounced the word “brother” as “buzzer” and, ultimately, this was shortened to Buzz.

After graduating from high school, Aldrin headed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and subsequently graduated third in his class with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. Despite his father’s wishes that he continue his education with the academy, Buzz dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. Ultimately, his father agreed to his son’s wishes and, in 1951, Buzz Aldrin joined the U.S. Air Force. Following this, Aldrin went on to serve for the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War with the 51st Fighter Wing. Flying a total of 66 combat missions throughout the course of the war, Aldrin fought to defend South Korea from invasion by the Communist forces from the North that were backed by the Soviet Union. He has said that he remembers his 37th mission the most vividly as this was when he destroyed his first MiG. For his service to his country, Aldrin was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war Aldrin decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into further education at MIT where he earned a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics. This Ph.D. consequently helped him join the space programme shortly after graduation. Because he was the only member with a doctorate, and the speciality of his Ph.D. concerned piloting manned spacecraft, Aldrin earned the nickname of Dr Rendezvous. The first trip into space that Aldrin would embark upon came about in 1966 when he joined the crew of Gemini 12. During this mission Aldrin embarked upon what was at the time the longest and most successful spacewalk in history. Rather amusingly, during this space walk he also took what would later be known as the first ever space ‘selfie’. He not only set a record for spacewalking, he also devised innovative techniques used on NASA missions and aided in the patent for a permanent space station.   

At this point in his life, Buzz Aldrin had already achieved things that most of us can only dream of. He had seen the world, gained a Ph.D., and, most remarkably, he left the safe confines of Earth and journeyed into space. Despite this, his greatest lifetime achievement would come three years after the Gemini 12 mission when he joined mission commander Neil Armstrong to be the second man to step foot on the Moon. For the historic Apollo 11 mission, Aldrin served as the lunar module pilot and flew the spacecraft safely to our celestial neighbour. The televised event became the most viewed event in TV history, with 600 million people gathering around their televisions to see two men step on to an alien surface. Although this was at the time seen as the USA winning the Cold War’s Space Race, today we now see the Moon landing as not just an achievement of two men or of one nation. Today, the Moon landing is seen as the greatest achievement of humanity as a whole. The Moon remains the only object other than Earth that humans have stood upon, but Buzz Aldrin has stated that, in his mind, there is little doubt that the next monumental achievement of humanity will be the first landing of a human on Mars.

Since the Moon landing, Buzz Aldrin has become a household name. In 1969 he inspired a generation of children to dream of following him and many other astronauts into the stars, and he still persists in his efforts to inspire people. He has been a prolific author, writing a number of children’s books about space travel, and has made numerous TV appearances on shows such as 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, and The Simpsons. And he still continues to give lectures and contribute to documentaries, all in an effort to light a spark of wonder in people’s minds, and the feeling that perhaps they too can journey away from Earth.

I’ll wrap this up by saying that I, Science wishes Buzz Aldrin a very happy 88th birthday, and thanks you for your service to humanity and to our humble planet. The Moon landings remain an example of what humans are capable of if we collectively have a dream and work together. Admittedly, the Space Race was driven by competition with the Soviet Union, but imagine what we could achieve today if the whole world had a similar dream.

Joe Hincks is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Aldrin Apollo 11, Wikimedia Commons

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