After two-and-a-half hours taking pictures and planting flags in the Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin broke a vital circuit-breaker in their lunar module. Houston was stumped and the craft grounded. The first men to walk on the Moon were able to return home only because Aldrin jammed a felt-tip pen into the tiny opening.
The first 50 pages of Magnificent Desolation give a gripping account of the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin is no poet but he doesn't have to be. His workmanlike, occasionally clumsy prose tells the story as it happened, complete with fascinating detail. He is also careful to include the inevitable tensions these men felt, mindful as they were of the history books: can I get out first? What should my soundbite be?
Ultimately, it is this human side of Aldrin that can't live up to his public image. He becomes a bitter, philandering drunk, struggling with depression. He writes candidly about trading on his fame to excuse appalling behaviour. His attempts to confront his alcoholism are genuine and admirable, and flashes of self-awareness – occasionally he parodies his moonwalker status – reveal a wry side. Despite his lingering sense of entitlement, it's hard to feel too critical, given that American-hero status was thrust on him in no uncertain terms.
The final third of the book reads like a post-lunar CV, or what he calls "the business of Buzz". There are personal insights and I enjoyed the account of him punching conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel (watch it on YouTube), but given half an inch he drifts off into his vision for space tourism, his frustration at being ignored, or a roll call of famous friends. No doubt he's led an interesting life (plagued by "the melancholy of things done" as he philosophically puts it), but I'd cut 30 pages from this version of it.