Buzz Aldrin, Apollo, and America’s Spirit

America’s Apollo astronauts -- 24 of whom travelled to the moon, 16 of whom walked on the moon, all of whom made mankind’s moon steps possible -- are a sobering lesson in patriotism and risk-taking, not to mention lifetime stamina. The topic arises – a teaching moment, as they say -- because Buzz Aldrin was recently evacuated to New Zealand from a South Pole expedition. First word is, he is okay -- if still intrepid.

Aldrin, one of the first two humans to walk on the moon, Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 11, is now 86. You would not know it to see him. Over the years, opportunities have presented themselves for working together -- and he is always the same. He bounds up the stairs, two bags in hand; answers every technical question to a depth that freezes keyboards and fills whiteboards. He is sharp as they come, still the PhD in astronautic engineering, still the moon walker. He is America’s most outspoken ambassador for getting to Mars, and back to the moon.

Nor is it just talk. Buzz walks the walk, did on the moon and does now. He has authored half a dozen books on when, how, why, and with what second- and third-order effects America should get back to space exploration. He is cogent, eloquent, and fervent in conviction that America must regain, maintain and press dominance in space -- maximizing the advantage of being “first.” And of course, he is right.

Today, our grip on space is weakening, with implications for national security, big science, human and robotic space exploration, satellites, and international leadership. Unclear for many, but crystal clear to Buzz and the Apollo astronauts, history does not stand still. What we do in space matters here on Earth. In a phrase, America’s leadership in space matters.

We are blessed still to have among us heroes from the spacefaring days. John Glenn (95), first American to orbit the Earth (three times). Of moon walkers, we have seven -- Buzz, Alan Bean (83, Apollo 12), Dave Scott (83, Apollo 9 and 15), John Young (85, Apollo 16), Charlie Duke (80, Apollo 16), Gene Cernan (81, Apollo 17) and Harrison Schmitt (80, Apollo 17).

Of other Apollo crews, we have ten still, Ken Mattingly (80, Apollo 16), Al Worden (84, Apollo 15), Fred Haise (83, Apollo 13), Jim Lovell (88, Apollo 13), Dick Gordon (87, Apollo 12), Mike Collins (86, Apollo 11), Tom Stafford (86, Apollo 10), Bill Anders (83, Apollo 8), Frank Borman (88, Apollo 8), and Walt Cunningham (84, Apollo 7).

But it is what these men did, how they did it, and what they stand for -- even now -- that should inspire us, not just their longevity or willingness to continue outsized projects, like the South Pole mission. These Americans were not just patriots, fighter and test pilots, supremely fit, willing to risk all for America -- although they were that.  

They were men of enormous resolve. They were men distinguished by a willingness and ability to concentrate intently on life-or-death missions, in service of their country -- us and our ideals. They knew the odds -- and knew other things. Chiefly, they knew what was worth dying for. They risked all to block the advance of totalitarian communism, and preserve our freedom. To be clear: the space race was a surrogate for war.

When John Glenn climbed aboard his Mercury-Atlas 6 spacecraft, propelled to space on the Atlas LV-3B engine, the rocket had exploded one in three times. When the Mercury astronauts were chosen in 1959, they were taken to witness a launch. The rocket exploded before their eyes. Still, Glenn was eager and up, buckled in.

Same thing for Apollo 7’s crew, Walt Cunningham, Wally Schirra, and Don Eisele flew after a fire that killed three colleagues. Same thing for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins, who pioneered America’s first trip to the surface of the moon, Apollo 11, not really knowing what they would find. Privately, they put the odds of safe return at two in three. Similar courage can be found in all the Apollo missions.

Why did they do this? Why take these chances? Why risk everything for the people and ideals? Asked if they thought about risk, you would probably get a -- no. More accurately, they made that choice early, and never looked back. For America’s ideals and their countrymen, risk was it.

Why, for America? Because they knew a secret: what was good for America was good for the world. America was the beacon, exceptional place, exceptional people, and exceptional idea -- well worth preserving. Nowhere else did there exist such promise, or the balance of freedom and equality, prosperity and adversity. If preserved by America, all the world would benefit.

For all our system’s imperfections, the Apollo astronauts understood the uniqueness -- of the moment and America. Embedded in our system is a promise that all may one day find it possible to prosper. Any wonder that the plaque Buzz and Neil left behind says simply: “We Came in Peace, for All Mankind.”

No wonder at all. At the time, most Americans knew what the astronauts knew: This our victory, but also a victory for all mankind. It was a moment of cohesion, shared promise, and oneness of species. What America had done, the world knew, would resound to the benefit of all -- and it has.  

So, as Buzz recovers from his latest adventure, and Apollo pioneers look about, they likely wonder if we are up the task. Whether we will carry forward what they began, make good on their historic down payment, assure that freedom and democracy have no end -- and that human space exploration continues. My hope is yes; more, my belief is yes.

Why? Because America did not just go to the moon “in peace for all Mankind,” but returned with that mission. We remain unique, the greatest guarantor of individual liberty and mankind’s destiny. That burden still requires daring, worthy goals in space and on Earth, taking risks for stretch goals, but -- on our game -- there is no stopping us.

If Buzz can still explore the South Pole at 86, we can assume some risk ourselves. That is the spirit that got us to the moon, and the spirit we need again -- now. With such spirit, nothing should be out of reach -- and nothing is, from peace to footsteps on Mars. So, Buzz, thanks for reminding us to keep setting stretch goals. And get better, friend. 

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State, who served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses. He led congressional oversight into NASA and Defense, is a former litigator, and writes widely on national security and legal issues. 

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