“The Buzz of the Universe: My Meeting with Buzz Aldrin, the Second Man on the Moon,” by Curtis Smale
On Sunday, April 12th, 2015, from 5pm to about 9:30pm, I had, by far, one of the most incredible and unexpected experiences of my life. On that night, I was in a meeting room at The Space Foundation (on Garden of the Gods Road), for about an hour and a half with the most unusual and extraordinary human being I have ever seen, in person: Buzz Aldrin.
Buzz was the second man to stand on the moon, about twenty minutes after Neil Armstrong became the first man to do so. The moon I am talking about here is the same one that you have seen many times, hanging without visible support, hundreds of thousands of miles above you in the starry night sky.
In the weeks leading up to this experience, I was so excited about what was coming that I couldn’t even believe it was real. Several times, afterward, when I told people that I stood five feet from the second man on the moon, their reaction was: “How?” As in, that’s impossible. There is no way that last night you were five feet from the second human being to put his boots on the moon. Impossible. How could that even be?
That’s like saying that last night you met Christopher Columbus. Exactly. That’s the reaction, with a sense of mystery and wonder, that I was looking for.
Well, in the weeks before, I exhausted myself with excitement. I also felt embarrassment and self-reproach because I was way, way too excited about this meeting.
The moon landing was a worldwide historical event back in July of 1969, when I was just four years old. I didn’t see the moon landing on TV, and I have no memories of it. I don’t remember my parents talking about it.
About 25 years ago, I missed my chance to meet the late Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, at the E.A.A. Fly-In in Wisconsin, and I have regretted that ever since.
Now, this is embarrassing to admit, but this truth is central to my experience of attending the Sunday night meeting with Dr. Buzz Aldrin: I became afraid of meeting Buzz, and then on the night of the event, “Yuri’s Night,” I became terrified at times, deep down. I was afraid because I thought, “Here you are, you stood on the moon, and here I am, and I sell products for a corporation.”
What I didn’t expect were two things. When you are in the presence of great people, they do not drag you down. They bring you up. A lot.
Secondly, the terror was from the mind expansion. Using that phrase is not an exaggeration. I was in two meeting rooms for a couple of hours with people who have put on real space suits and floated around in real space, on the International Space Station, and on the real moon. They were not in a movie.
For an hour and half, I was in a room with the man who was in the Lunar Module while the first man on the moon was making the first footprint ever made on the moon.
Before the lecture by Buzz, I spoke to Dr. Leroy Chiao, Chinese NASA astronaut and a space walker, in the Q & A after his lecture. I asked him if Mars One (a group expedition to go to Mars and live and die there) was real. He gave a very long and complicated answer: “No,” he said. Everyone in the room laughed. They would not make it there. They had no rocket scientists on their staff.
Chiao went through some history of the Chinese contribution to NASA and to space exploration in general, and showed many photos that he took from space, mostly of structures on earth as seen from space. The thing he was most surprised by was the blue glow of earth’s atmosphere, and how there were all these different gradations of blue.
Then, I went over to the room named “Area 51,” for the lecture by Dr. Kathryn Thornton, an astronaut. She looked like, and was, a friendly grandmother. But about twenty-five years ago, she too was wearing that familiar astronaut space suit and floating unbelievably high above the earth on a space station. She talked about man’s journey into space, tracing it from the beginnings of mapping out the continents of the earth, hundreds of years ago. The most amazing thing she said was that her uncle travelled westward across the United States on a covered wagon, and then, only a few years later, watched his niece being rocketed into space and floating among the stars.
I again was among the maybe three or four people who asked Thornton questions in the Q & A after her lecture. I asked her how dangerous it was, being in a suit that could be hit by space debris or a meteorite. Her answer stunned me to the core. She said something very close to: “We accept that we can die when we accept the mission.” Stone cold. She was more scared about flipping switches correctly and completing the mission well than about dying. There is an instant respect and recognition of nobility that arises in the soul of a person who realizes that this is real.
Then, everyone was told to keep their seats because we have another speaker coming in in a few moments. Well, he just walked into the room with no introduction and went over and stood by the wall.
Immediately, I recognized Buzz Aldrin.
He stood ramrod straight as they fitted him with a head microphone, looking just like they were suiting him up for a moon mission. This, and his unannounced entrance, already affected me.
After a very brief introduction, Buzz stepped forward, and talked about Mars and Venus. He used about half a sentence to mention the moon landing in passing and immediately began outlining his plan for reusable orbiters and robots to branch out to Mars and Venus. There was a circular diagram on the video screen that he kept adding arcs and loops to. He punched the air and envisioned a thousand-year plan for exploring space. We were both to cooperate with and be wary of our political enemies.
The thing that most impressed me the most about Buzz is that he wasn’t at all like the person I’ve seen on TV several times. I was expecting maybe a bloated egotist basking in past glory. Not at all.
This was like being in the Rebel Flight Crew Room from STAR WARS. Actually, there were STAR WARS posters and posters from many science fiction and science fantasy movies on the wall that Buzz walked by when he entered the room. When you are in a room with a man who has stood on the moon, and he is lecturing you about how we are going to go to Mars and Venus, and then out of the solar system, you believe him. It is an awe-inspiring experience.
I have never seen a man as powerful as Buzz Aldrin. His demeanor was like George C. Scott playing General Patton, except this charisma was real, born directly from experience. Authentic. Undeniable. I was ready go into battle. At 85 years old, Buzz’s years of aging have not diminished his power. They have almost certainly added to it. He looked like he could throw you across the room with his eyes. I was ready to go to Mars. Now. He wore a shirt that said, “Get Your Ass To MARS.” Yes, sir.
Contrary to what was promised, Buzz Aldrin did no Q & A, and did not shake hands, take personal photographs, or sign autographs. After his lecture, I waited with another guy in the lobby, Eric, a Lockheed Martin employee, to meet Buzz Aldrin personally. The attendant told us that Buzz would not be coming this way, but that he would leave out of the back of the building. Eric and I were not buying it. We were both fifty years old, and we were not falling for that.
Standing there with his mother was a young man about twenty years old, with a ponytail and a high school jacket with ROCKET SCIENTIST curved in capital letters on the back. He told one of the Space Foundation’s blonde female handlers in a black skirt that he had taken a photo of the moon on the night Neil died, and he wanted to give it to Buzz. His mother wanted it given to Buzz, but the handler said something like, “Wait right here.”
I love hearing those words. I heard similar words after I saw online that this night was SOLD OUT. When I called, the young female professional said that they sold out for the Buzz Aldrin evening. Fire code occupancy limits. I told her that I wanted to see Buzz because I missed seeing the first man on the moon twenty-five years ago, and did not want to miss meeting Buzz Aldrin. “What is your name?” “Neil” “Last name?” “Armstrong.” She laughed. “Curtis,” I said. “Last name?” “Smale.” “Hold on for a moment.” She went and talked with someone…
“Can you be here at 5pm?”
“YES,” I said.
“Just say your name and we will let you in.” Tears came to my eyes. I almost missed out on this experience!
I asked, I think, five times if I also could go up the futuristic elevator and down the hall to have a personal audience with Buzz. I had a photo of Buzz and Stephen Hawking I wanted him to autograph. “No, sorry,” came the reply.
But, sure as we thought, Buzz came down the elevator and walked by Eric and me, the only other two guys in Colorado Springs, Colorado that night who really wanted to meet him.
“Hi Buzz,” I said, or maybe I only thought it. Several older guys in dark suits, and one in particular, blocked my photo-taking efforts with their chests.
But, I got what I wanted: Buzz Aldrin walked right by me.
I can’t remember envying anyone as much as that kid who got to meet Buzz Aldrin privately. I felt like LaCombe when Roy Neary was getting passage on the Mothership in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Maybe there will be another time.
I have never watched any science fiction movie that was more real and intense than this experience.
For two or three days after this meeting, my mind was floating around in the universe between Mars and Venus, looking out on the endless galaxies. It was hard to come back down to earth.
There was a long-lasting and deep sense of possibility, unlike anything I have ever felt.
This was a person utterly unlike anyone I have ever met–and I have shaken the hand of a sitting president and have met more than a dozen movie stars and other famous people in person. This experience had the quality of being in the room with a space alien for an hour a half.
The man from the moon.
The man who had stood on the moon was in another dimension entirely, even compared with those who had floated in space above the earth.
I had to wait until three weeks after these things to write about it. I was too excited.
I’ve probably told this story twenty-five times at least already, especially in the week after.
Buzz Aldrin may come back to the Space Foundation next year. If, next year, you get the chance to meet this great man, visionary, doctor, genius, and truly legendary astronaut of incredible bravery–don’t miss it for the world.
This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.