Certain people, at certain times in American history, deserve a special thank you. Many of those to whom we owe debts are gone – but not all. We are lucky when the chance arises to say – thank you. And it does today.
Nine decades ago, a child came home. Home was New Jersey. The date was January 20, 1930. In one of those odd coincidences that vex the imagination, his mother’s maiden name was Moon. His father was a World War I aviator who took him flying at two.
Blessed with tenacity, he played high school football, won the 1946 State Championship. From there, he applied to West Point, got in, and worked hard. First in plebe class, he graduated third, had a knack for math. He studied mechanical engineering. Close friends included Ed White and Sam Johnson. The three would stay fast friends for life.
Graduating, he trained in fighters, headed for Korea. The war was on. The New Jersey boy took outsized risks. Training in a T-28 Trojan, he wondered if it could pull an “Immelmann turn,” a risky move that involved diving on an enemy plane, then climbing above it, full rudder to yaw, falling into a second dive. The New Jersey boy was daring – but also human. He grayed out, recovering 200 feet off the deck, narrowly escaping young death.
Testing limits helped in Korea. He flew 66 combat missions in an F-86 Saber. He shot down two MIGs, one under extraordinary pressure. Engaging a faster Mig-15, the two got into scissors maneuvers, each trying to get behind the other. The American got a shot, but gunsight jammed.
A precursor to future events, the New Jersey boy stayed calm, manually sighted, fired, brought the Mig-15 down. When Korea was over, he wore two Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals. Soon he and West Point friend Ed were flying F-100 Super Sabres, nuclear weapons under their wings, from West Germany. The missions were thankless, replete with risk, and he loved them. The two were in America’s 22nd Fighter Squadron, 36th Fighter Wing.
When Ed left Germany, his New Jersey friend began work on a Ph.D. in astronautical engineering – from MIT. He got it. His thesis topic was “manned orbital rendezvous.”
Then came a major disappointment. Encouraged by Ed to apply to NASA’s astronaut program, he got rejected – not a test pilot. Undeterred, he dedicated his thesis to America’s future: “In hopes, this work may in some way contribute to their exploration of space, this is dedicated to crew members of the country’s present and future manned space programs,” adding “If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!”
Wishes do come true. NASA dropped the test pilot requirement – if, in the alternative, a combat fighter pilot had 1000 flying hours. Our New Jersey boy had 2500. He was promptly admitted.
Things now sped up, if that was possible. When two astronauts got killed in training, he and Jim Lovell stepped up. They became the prime crew for Gemini 12. In November 1966, the New Jersey boy executed a successful spacewalk, then proved unusually talented and resourceful. When computer and radar glitches nobbled automatic docking with a target vehicle, he used star charts, a sextant, and pen, along with his Ph.D. training in astronautical engineering, to assist manual docking. That was a first for NASA.
By now, you know where this story is going. Our New Jersey boy, whom a young sister called “Buzz” was Dr. Buzz Aldrin. He and Neil Armstrong would be the first humans to walk on the moon, colleague Mike Collins orbiting in the command module. But the journey to success was not without sadness. Buzz’s friend Ed White died in the Apollo One pad fire, and friend Sam Johnson spent seven years as a Vietnam POW. Buzz would often think of both.
On July 20, 1969 – fifty years ago last July – Buzz, and Neil walked on the moon, fulfilling Kennedy’s promise to reach the moon within a decade, beating the Soviets, accelerating an end to the Cold War, and leaving a plaque on the moon: “We came in peace for all Mankind.”
The same Buzz, the author of countless books, speeches, and articles, resilient through personal crises, undying patriot, astronautical engineer and visionary, has helped successive administrations get back on track – for the moon and Mars.
Buzz remains the quintessential patriot, a thoughtful speaker, technical writer, strategic planner, and believer in American exceptionalism, destiny, and unrivaled determination. Forever grateful, he loves America. Gratitude attaches in every conversation about West Point, Korea, Germany, Gemini, and Apollo 11’s voyage to the moon and back.
On his 90th birthday, he is all about gratitude. But that seems off. It is we who owe him enduring thanks for his example of personal courage, unblinking tenacity, unapologetic commitment to the future, and unconditional patriotism. He still helps combat vets, attends innumerable events, and loves America. On such shoulders is the future built. May America be worthy of such men. Happy Birthday, Buzz!