Not just the second man on the Moon

Buzz Aldrin's life story is stranger than fiction. Maybe that's why he's turning his hand to sci-fi. By Sue Nelson
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Making history was a mixed blessing for Buzz Aldrin. After walking on the Moon, on 20 July 1969, the former astronaut metaphorically - and literally - came down to Earth.

In today's media-savvy world it's hard to imagine how unprepared the Apollo 11 astronauts were for celebrity, but Aldrin, a scientist with a doctorate in astronautics, and his colleagues, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, both test pilots, found that the enormity of their achievement changed everything. According to Aldrin's autobiography, Return to Earth, his profession was immediately "shelved until further notice".

The void hit hard. They did not court stardom and each reacted to public adulation in different ways. Armstrong became a recluse; Collins wrote books on space travel - one voicing fears about gay relationships in space due to prolonged periods of confinement; while Aldrin had problems ranging from alcoholism and womanising to psychiatric illness. Some critics seem unable to forgive the astronauts for their lack of verbal skills - forgetting that they were chosen for more practical qualities - but Aldrin may have the last laugh with the publication this month of his first science-fiction novel, Encounter with Tiber.

"Painful though it is to make such an admission," confesses Arthur C Clarke in the foreword, "I would have been proud to have written Encounter with Tiber myself."

This impressive recommendation is well-deserved. The book, co-written with the science-fiction author John Barnes, is an epic tale of contact with aliens from another star system.

It begins on the 100th anniversary of the moon-landing when Earth starts receiving radio messages from Alpha Centauri. The resulting saga covers 9,000 years and encompasses the history of space travel on Earth, manned trips to Mars, and the lives of two alien races on the moon of Tiber.

As might be expected from someone who specialised in orbital mechanics, the scientific explanations are thorough - with diagrams of starships and orbits, complex descriptions of "Lagrange libration points" and even the Space Shuttle bail-out procedure.

"We set out to be highly credible," says Aldrin, "to not try and bend the law of physics but to project as accurately as possible what things might be like."

The authors are also not afraid of introducing an "Aldrin" MERC spacecraft - a Mars-Earth Return Cycle shuttle that remains permanently in space. Indeed, the use of the scientist's name is perfectly reasonable, as the book explains: "There was something appropriate about the name Aldrin being the first one to make the voyage; Aldrin himself had worked out the basic principle of the cyclers back in the mid-l980s, and added further refinements a decade later."

This isn't the only moment that the reader is reminded of Aldrin's active role in space science. (He recently designed a space programme to Mars, for instance, and one of his pet projects is a solar power station on the Moon.)

"I started thinking about travel between stars about 20 years ago," he says. "Then it was a question of adding some of the practical thoughts I've had for improving our space programme and wanting to tell an intriguing story."

Aldrin realised he needed a writer "to fill in the character development and integrate my ideas in a literary way". He approached John Barnes two years ago after reading his novel, Orbital Resonance. It was the practical nature of Barnes's book that attracted Aldrin - one of the reasons he also admires Arthur C Clarke's work. "I prefer reality to fantasy so I projected into the future with as much credibility, experience and authority as I possibly could. That's been the hallmark of Arthur C Clarke and he's very inspiring."

Barnes, without a doubt, has provided the literary glue for Aldrin's ideas and scientific knowledge - and the collaboration has worked. Encounter with Tiber is more than just a celebrity title - even though Barnes's name appears as an afterthought on the front cover and Buzz Aldrin's spacesuit- clad figure dominates the back. It's an enjoyable, comprehensive science- fiction novel and, probably because it is so firmly grounded in fact, utterly believable.

Aldrin, who has described himself in the past as "Nasa's salesman", denies that any character is based on himself. This is hard to believe, particularly when a son of one of the astronauts says: "Dad complained endlessly about it all, griping that he was really a scientist and not some stupid celebrity."

There is also a touch of point-scoring; part one of the book is entitled "Contact Light: Another Small Step", and as the footnote explains, "contact light" were the first words spoken by a human being on the moon, referring to a light that indicated there was something solid beneath the feet of the lunar module Eagle. Those words were spoken by Aldrin. Presumably it's important to be first if you have spent nearly 30 years being introduced as the second man on the Moon.

So what does Aldrin consider his greatest achievement: going to the Moon, overcoming his personal problems or writing a novel? "Well, the opportunity to go to the Moon opened up challenges," he says. "It also speeded up problems that I had to deal with. But overcoming these problems allowed me to take the experience of going to the Moon and put it into an interesting story. It all wove together."

Aldrin, teetotal for almost two decades, certainly appears controlled and focused. Although fit and tanned, there's also a touch of world-weary "been there done that" about him. He does, however, display a genuine desire to be remembered as more than a former astronaut.

"The one thing that I take the greatest pride in is that I have independent, creative, imaginative thoughts," he says, "and I wanted to share those thoughts with people and feel that I was appreciated for more than being just a crewman who could carry out tasks but as one who could think and contemplate the future."

n 'Encounter with Tiber' by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes is published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardback, priced pounds 16.99

Comments