When you think about who we are, who Americans are, what we are capable of, and what moves us to action, you could bring up hundreds of heroes and legacies made through hundreds of years. Perhaps focusing on one or two is worth the time. Take our Apollo heroes, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin.
Born in New Jersey in 1930, this American kid – mother’s maiden name Moon – should have died many times. By modern standards, he should have given up, but he never did.
The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were all like that, irrepressible, confident beyond reason, somehow able to bend laws of humanity to improbable outcomes, and patriots.
What Buzz – and others deserving gratitude – did was never quit, never give up on America’s ideals, mission, objectives, ability to perform, or our expectation they could.
In high school, young Buzz played football. Mostly linebacker; if needed, he played center. They won the State Championship. Graduated number three from West Point, got to know Ed White, and dreamed of flying. They did it together in Germany.
First, they trained. A 20-something Buzz found himself in a T-28. No one had done an “Immelmann turn” in the plane, so Buzz tried it. The turn is a fast pull upward, high G’s, swapping speed for altitude, going inverted then rolling upright, 180 degrees from go.
Buzz did it. In a flash, he thought “why not try a double Immelmann,” dropped into a dive, gathered speed, pulled those high G’s – and passed out. Later, he laughs. “Well, I was lucky … came to a few hundred feet from the ground, stick between my legs … so just pulled it back.”
Zest for life, curiosity about the possible, willingness to test limits, take risks, indulge wonder, exercise presence of mind … He thinks this is unspectacular, just likes being out of the box.
All the Apollo guys had that – love of nation, risking their lives for higher purpose. You hear heroes do not exist. Do not believe it. You hear we should write them out of history. Don’t you dare. You see Top Gun, hear people sniff at heroes. Wrong, they walk among us, they exist.
Interviewing Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 – first crew after three died in Apollo 1, the question is: “Were you afraid?” Perplexed, Walt says: “No …we were not afraid. We made that decision long before, were prepared to die for our country, knew the mission mattered … what was good for America was good for the world, we never thought about it again.” Imagine that.
In Korea, Buzz flew 66 combat missions in an F-86 Sabre, two MIG shootdowns – dramatic dogfights, stunning display of scissors, downed one of their best. Later, he and Ed flew in Germany. Ed encouraged Buzz to think space. Buzz did, applied to NASA – got rejected.
Buzz knew America had to succeed, so earned a PhD from MIT in astronautical engineering, focused on one mystery, orbital rendezvous. He dedicated his thesis to those who would fly.
Buzz applied once more time. This time, he got in. He offered ideas, became first to train for spacewalks by diving –neutral buoyancy, as close as space gets on earth.
When two astronauts died, Buzz and Jim Lovell fleeted up for Gemini 12. This was the last Gemini, had to succeed. Soviets were hard on our tail. The mission? Orbital rendezvous.
Fate has a way of intersecting with human plans. Gemini 12’s docking computer failed, leaving Mission Control with a dilemma, how to dock with no computer Buzz, steeped in math, star charts, his doctoral thesis on orbital rendezvous, said he could do it manually. He did.
America was now on to Apollo, the moon. When Apollo 11 became the pioneer flight, who would fly? Mike Collins, undisputed master of the Command Module, Neil Armstrong, exceptional fighter pilot and former Navy, Buzz Aldrin, PhD in orbital rendezvous, combat fighter pilot, proven in Gemini 12.
Neil and Buzz would go to the surface, exit the lunar module, set experiments, return, and light the ascent engine, rejoin Mike, come home. They felt they had a 2 in 3 chance of return, plenty.
Talking with Buzz about launch, they only knew they were up by instruments. Lots of checklists. Descent was edgy, two abort alarms, ignored. Boulders threatened the lunar module skin, like “three pieces of tin foil.” Neil had “four choices, left, right, down, or forward … we knew more fuel would be needed forward, but that was the best choice.” They landed with 17 seconds of fuel. Buzz checked for leaks, then they walked.
Neil descended a ladder, stepping onto an orb so removed a thumb covered all humanity. “One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Buzz descended shortly after, “Magnificent desolation,” he called it. Fear? No time for that.
Back inside, Buzz and Neil made a discovery that would jar most. Having pulled the ascent engine’s circuit breaker when on the moon, to prevent accidental launch, they had snapped it off with a backpack. No switch, no ascent. So, what happened?
They relayed this to Mission Control, who said “go to sleep,” will figure something out. Facing a possible eternity on the moon, what did they do? Buzz chuckles, “We went to sleep.”
Next morning, no answer. What happened then? They started a process to see if there was any power behind the circuit, juice behind that broken breaker. How long did that take? “Maybe 20 minutes.” Nervous? “No, that was not our job …” How about the possibility you could not get off the moon? “Not our job, other tasks to do.” Simple as that.
This was America at our best – trusting each other, sometimes with our lives, as in combat, as in the past, just as we should be, indivisible, a trusting team. Buzz chuckles. “Well, they said there was juice, but they did not know how to get the circuit breaker in, how to light the engine…” So?
Well, it was on Buzz’s side, so he began thinking. Use a metal pen? No, that might short the circuit. His little finger? No, he conducted electricity, might short it too.
Answer? Buzz had a felt tipped pen – not on the manifest. Why? “I liked the big fat marks it made on the checklist.” That simple? “Yes.” With all humanity expecting on-schedule launch, having snapped off the ascent engine toggle, Buzz innovated. A felt tipped pen lit the engine.
They joined Mike, came home, made history, helped end the Cold War peacefully, enabled subsequent moon missions, lived to recall it all. Ever talk about that close call with each other? No need …we got through it.” That was it? Yep, we got home.
As July 20 – our first moon landing’s 53rd anniversary – comes, think on what that means. Reflect on what we are made of, what we do in a pinch, how we assess risk, innovate when others hesitate, how this incredible Nation has led the world in so many ways for so long, winning two world wars, pioneering science, sustaining hope, making impossible possible, We have among us real heroes – including Buzz, Walt, those Apollo crews. Let them inspire you. They inspire me.