Thursday, 2 June 2016

Moonstruck: Meeting Buzz Aldrin

I’m sitting in the gallery of the Sheldonian Theatre, one of the most beautiful if not one of the most comfortable venues in Oxford. Looking down across the packed floor, I see a tanned face and a white beard through the glass of a side door. Moments later, in he comes, wearing a beige blouson jacket with embroidered badges on it. He waves like a king and air-punches like a prize-fighter as he makes his way through the applauding crowd.

He’s Buzz Aldrin.

His sassy, witty ‘Mission Director’ Christina Korb conducts the interview, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, but even she has trouble managing the blurted reminiscences and anecdotes. The man is bursting with things to tell us. He’s opinionated, forceful, waving be-ringed hands, boasting about the Omega watch he wore on the outside of his spacesuit because it’s kinda hard to see the time otherwise.

I read Andrew Smith’s fascinating book Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth several years ago, struck by the poignant reason for its composition. At that time, only nine men were alive who had walked on the surface of the moon, so he set about interviewing them while he could.

Well, there’s fewer than nine now. That is why several hundred people have queued in the chill rain outside and will later queue for the best part of an hour to get their books signed. I’m one of them. For a moment, we’re in contact with history, with what now seems a lost idealistic era. I grew up with the sense that space held all potential. I’d read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian and Venusian series, and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury. The stars, the planets and the dear old moon itself held out dreams of human aspiration, adventure and fulfilment.

So we lap up the bombast and the showboating, enjoy the clearly oft-repeated wisecracks, the whole display of it, because although this man is 86 now he is more alive than most we’ll ever meet and this man walked on the moon! He wears a T-shirt saying ‘Get your ass to Mars’ and is passionate about sending humans there, saying that a human can do in a week what took Spirit and Rover five years. He describes his spacewalk, saying he ‘wanted to putt putt putt around like George Clooney in Gravity.’ He’s contemptuous of the Russians – yes, they put Sputnik up there but ‘if you put up a dumb satellite you don’t give it a parade and everybody loves a parade!’ What’s more, they put a dog in orbit and left it there – ‘at least we brought our monkey back.’ He expresses regret at the loss of Neil Armstrong and talks of his family and the kind of destiny he’d felt – his mother was called Marion Moon and his father knew the Wright brothers – yup, it was all meant.

The door of the Sheldonian open with a view
 of the Bodleian's Divinity Schools behind
When I eventually reach the head of the queue and he signs my copy of No Dream is Too High, I burble something about looking up at the moon from a Scottish garden when I was a little girl, amazed to think he was up there. ‘My mother came from Edinboro …’ he smiles and I pass on, past the selfie-taking crowd. Outside the Sheldonian I wish the clouds would part and I could see the old man’s stamping ground.

I remember another night, years ago, when I looked at the moon and it gave me an idea for a story of ‘something strange, spectacular and out of this world’ that grew into a children’s book, Hinterland, still not published though it made it to the shortlist of a significant prize in 2013. I remember the magic of writing that story, of describing grey dust and a terraced crater like an amphitheatre and ‘hanging like a jewel against the dense black void, with fat blue oceans and swirling white clouds’, our planet. And I think to myself, I need to rediscover what that story meant to me, and maybe, just maybe, roll it out onto the launchpad once more and send it into the ether myself.

So thank you, Buzz.

And thank you, Blackwell’s Oxford (best bookshop in the world), for hosting this event!

Further reading:

Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is too High – Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon
Andrew Smith: Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth
Andrew Chaikin: A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

Raindrops really, but these white globes
lend a suitably otherworldly tone to this picture of the Sheldonian!

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