Magnificent Desolation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2009, 12:00am

Magnificent Desolation
by Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham
Harmony Books HK$216

Buzz Aldrin understandably feels his life peaked when he set foot on the moon. That feeling carries over into his autobiography, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From the Moon, which arrives in the wake of Apollo 11's 40th anniversary.

The first three chapters, which detail the landing, are riveting; the rest of the book documents his descent into depression and alcoholism during the years that followed. These chapters are packed with dates and locations, but reveal little about the man and his mind. Sadly, after a stunning start, the book unfolds as little more than a tale of domestic despair.

Aldrin, the second man to step on to the moon, has a reputation for being 'difficult'. An ambitious astronaut, he was reportedly jealous that Neil Armstrong was chosen to take that first step. In recent years, Aldrin has been a thorn in Nasa's side, berating the US space agency for putting robotic exploration and low-orbit space flights, like those of the Space Shuttle, ahead of manned flights. Magnificent Desolation takes some time to address these issues and even then interesting aspects are relegated to the margins.

The book begins with a rip-roaring account of the moon landing. Aldrin laments that he is a scientist and not a poet, and says that is why he has made so few philosophical points about his experience. Also, he says, he was too busy to think about anything other than the matters in hand. One unexpected revelation is that Aldrin's biggest worry was looking foolish in front of the television cameras that were beaming images back to Earth. He doesn't say much about how his moon trip changed him, simply offering that he was thrilled that it was a 'shared experience in which people throughout the world participated'.

Back on Earth, he tired of being used for publicity purposes for Nasa yet found it difficult to find a job outside the agency. He became clinically depressed and turned to drink. Most of the book documents his battle with alcohol and the deterioration of his marriage. That could be interesting if it were related to his disillusionment with life after the moon landings; journalist Andrew Smith did a better job of analysing the psychology of Aldrin - and all the other moonwalkers - in his book Moondust.

Space fans will find titbits tucked away in the despair. Armstrong's seniority as commander is usually quoted as the reason he was the first out of the Eagle; Aldrin says Armstrong was given that honour because he was seated next to the exit. Aldrin also addresses the claim that jealousy led him to avoid taking a photograph of Armstrong on the moon: there are no pictures of the first man on the surface except an image of Armstrong reflected in Aldrin's helmet visor. Aldrin wasn't jealous, he says, it was simply that Armstrong had the camera most of the time.

There is a much better book inside Aldrin than this, especially now that Nasa is back in line with his views on exploration. Aldrin has said for years that manned missions to the moon and beyond are the only way to fire up the public's imagination - and thus enable greater funding. Today, manned space exploration is in vogue again at the agency. A Mars landing, something Aldrin has been calling for since the 1970s, is being discussed. One hopes Aldrin will put his demons behind him for his next book and concentrate on discussing new developments in space travel.