The first man to walk in space and the second to tread on the moon, Buzz Aldrin went on to be the most culturally dynamic alumnus of America's space program. A West Point grad and veteran fighter pilot in the Korean War, Aldrin went on to distinguish himself as a scholar before becoming a key technological engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA selected him for its elite corps of astronauts in 1963, leading to a spacewalk in 1966 and following partner Neil Armstrong on the famous moon landing in July 1969. Almost as famously, Aldrin battled alcoholism, as well as clinical depression. But he would rebound to become one of the biggest public ambassadors for space exploration, appearing periodically throughout the decades across a spectrum of media, from documentaries and "Star Trek" tributes to irreverent comedies like "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" (Cartoon Network, 1994-2004) and "The Simpsons" (FOX, 1989- ). A living testament to one of the greatest achievements of applied science and humankind's wherewithal, Aldrin maintained his legacy as the one of the most zealous proponents of continued space exploration well into the 21st century.
Born on Jan. 20, 1930 in Montclair, NJ, Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr. was raised by his father, Eugene Sr., an MIT-graduate and colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his mother, Marion, the daughter of an Army Chaplain. His father took Aldrin on his first airplane ride when he was two years old, while he earned his nickname when his younger sister, unable to pronounce "brother," referred to him as her "buzzer." From an early age, he wanted to be a pilot, fanned by his father's association with military aviation pioneers such as A.W. Stephens, Billy Mitchell and James Doolittle. To that end, Aldrin applied himself to physical training and discipline, joining the Boy Scouts, attending summer camps in Maine, and joining the gymnastics, swimming and track teams at Montclair High School where he was also a starting center for its state champion football squad. Though he performed well enough in school to earn a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he instead matriculated at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY, eventually graduating third in his class and securing a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1951.
Aldrin joined the U.S. Air Force and pulled a hitch in the ongoing Korean conflict, serving with the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, where he flew Sabre jets in 66 combat missions and shot down two Chinese MiG-15s. In 1958, after stints with the Air Force Academy and with U.S. forces in Germany - where he and his wife Joan, whom he had married in 1954, had their first son - Aldrin began hearing about the just-established U.S. space program, then recruiting the top flyers in the U.S. military for its astronaut pool. Intent upon bringing more to the program, he finally enrolled at MIT in 1959, with the USAF footing the bill, and took on the nonpareil science school's astronautics program. He completed his doctoral thesis on manned orbital rendezvous - essentially approach and docking techniques for spacecraft. All his efforts paid off, when in 1963 NASA selected Aldrin - by then a USAF colonel - for its third class of astronauts.
NASA adopted the techniques from his thesis, and though by his later admission, Aldrin did not enjoy much camaraderie with fellow astronauts, they nonetheless dubbed him "Dr. Rendezvous." He also conceived a new method of movement training for astronauts, using underwater environments to simulate weightlessness. He would put it into action on Nov. 11, 1966, blasting into space along with James Lovell on the four-day final Gemini-phase mission. It was on that mission that Aldrin went outside the Gemini 12 craft for the first spacewalk, logging five and a half hours of "EVA" (extra-vehicular activity). Aldrin's sister would later admit that their mother, who had been battling depression for some years, had become particularly apprehensive over the press of celebrity encircling her son -- enough that she attempted suicide twice, succeeding the second time with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1968. Despite the tragic personal loss that was the result of his professional career, Aldrin continued in the NASA program.
But the zenith of America's space program would be the ensuing Apollo Program, which would build towards John F. Kennedy's famous pledge that America would one day "go to the moon." NASA named Neil Armstrong commander of the Apollo 11 flight that would achieve that goal, with Aldrin to be pilot of the Eagle lunar lander vehicle and Mike Collins pilot of the orbital spacecraft. The flight blasted off from Cape Kennedy, FL on July 16, 1969 for the four-day trip to the moon. On July 20, Aldrin and Armstrong separated the Eagle and made their epoch-making landing on the moon, with Armstrong taking the first step down off the lander, pronouncing it "one giant leap for mankind," while Aldrin followed right behind. Upwards of 600 million people watched the landing, the largest television audience in the history of the medium. They initially spent two-and-a-half hours on the moon's surface, which Aldrin famously described as "magnificent desolation," eventually logging a total of 21 total hours outside the craft.
Upon returning from the moon, President Nixon bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the most distinguished laurel the U.S. government could give a citizen in peacetime - on the three Apollo 11 astronauts. On August 13, they flew into New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles in quick succession to receive ticker-tape parades in each city, followed by a 45-day global goodwill tour. But amid the ballyhoo, Aldrin began feeling a sense of disquiet, which he noted when the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp with Armstrong on it honoring the "First Man on the Moon." Meanwhile, NASA utilized him as little more than a celebrated public relations representative, which made him increasingly introspective about having achieved something that he could realistically never top. In 1971, he resigned from NASA and took a job as the commandant of the USAF Test Pilot School based at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But neither the change in venue nor his ever more voluminous alcohol consumption could stem Aldrin's growing depression and distance from his family, which he compounded by an extramarital affair.
Fitful, Aldrin left the USAF in 1972, and while his fellow astronauts kept low profiles, Aldrin took commercial opportunities, including a seat on the board of Mutual of Omaha and a spot in a high-profile commercial for Volkswagen. He also published a memoir, Return to Earth, that proved remarkably candid, including details of his affair and ostensible reconciliation with his wife. Though he went in and out of therapy, his personal issues persisted, fanned by fears of having inherited his mother's predisposition towards mental illness and the fact that, for the first time in his life, he did not have the regimentation of the military or NASA setting his schedule. He divorced Joan in 1974; at one point retreating to an apartment in Los Angeles and venturing out every couple weeks to pick up take-out food and liquor. In his 2009 memoir Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin wrote that those very words he had used to describe the moon had too ironically come to describe his own life since his contribution to history.
At the urging of his soon-to-be second wife for the next three years, Aldrin entered a rehab program and joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1975. A year later, Return to Earth was made into a television movie for ABC, with Cliff Robertson playing Aldrin, Shirley Knight as Joan and Stephanie Powers as his mistress. Though he had a crater named for him on the moon, Aldrin found himself selling cars for an L.A. dealership in 1977; he later admitted he never sold a single car. To bolster his income to help pay alimony, he made his first entrees into the entertainment media. He started with a game show appearance, then a role as himself in the made-for-television tearjerker "The Boy In the Plastic Bubble" (ABC, 1976), starring a young John Travolta as an immuno-compromised teen whom Aldrin briefly visits in the hospital. In 1978, he did a spot as a presenter on science fiction awards show, an early iteration of what would become a semi-regular call for him - that of a sagely authority juxtaposing sci-fi and actual space exploration. In 1981, the fledgling cable channel MTV began using graphically treated imagery of Aldrin hopping around on the moon planting the U.S. flag, on which the channel superimposed the MTV logo.
Aldrin returned to the spotlight in the mid-1980s, taking quick, quirky cameos as himself on such television shows as "The Fall Guy" (ABC, 1981-86) and the kids' show "Punky Brewster" (NBC/syndicated, 1984-88), on which he offered the precocious title character of the latter show sagely advice on how to go forward in the face of loss after the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. This touching performance came to evince a new aspect of his public persona of a high-profile spokesman for continued space exploration, even as NASA's efforts became something less than the spectacle they had once been for Americans. In fact, that was the theme of a 1994 episode of Fox's popular sitcom "The Simpsons" (1989- ), in which NASA hopes to revive public interest by selecting an everyman to go into space, the nod naturally going to preternaturally incompetent Homer Simpson. Aldrin voiced himself as member of the crew taking Simpson into space and uttered one of the episode's funniest lines when Homer opens a smuggled bag of potato chips in zero-gravity, scattering them everywhere: "Careful! They're ruffled!"
Aldrin made more regular appearances in programming suited to both his scientific and space-travel credentials. His irrepressible cheerleading for man's potential to reach the stars was served well in the 25th and 30th anniversary retrospectives of the "Star Trek" franchise. He served as technical advisor and did a cameo as a minister in the television movie "Apollo 11" (Family Channel, 1996), while appearing in the documentary "Trekkies" (1997), as well as having a funny guest spot on two episodes of Cartoon Network's "Space Ghost Coast to Coast." But Aldrin's renaissance involved more than just cameos. In 1991, he published a second memoir of the space program, Men From Earth, followed by two novels co-written with John Barnes, Encounter with Tiber (1997) and The Return (2000). He also put his name on two illustrated children's books, Reaching for the Moon (2005) and Look to the Stars (2009). Putting his rocket science bona fides to use again, he conceived of an overall plan to explore Mars with a modular system dubbed the "Aldrin Mars Cycler." He also founded a rocket design company called Starcraft Boosters Inc., through which he marketed Starbooster reusable rockets.
In 1998, Aldrin founded the ShareSpace Foundation, a nonprofit that funded research into enterprises that could allow everyday people access to space. The nonprofit received a boost from the likes of rapper Snoop Dogg and Quincy Jones, who produced a song Aldrin himself rapped to on Funnyordie.com to help raise money for the foundation during the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Apropos of Aldrin's ongoing advocacy, President George W. Bush named Aldrin to the newly established Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, which held hearings to examine economic and national security possibilities of continued space exploration. Aldrin remained robust into his golden years, as one guerrilla filmmaker and conspiracy theorist, Bart Sibrel, found out in 2002. With a camera rolling, Sibrel confronted Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel with the ever-persisting conspiracy theory that the moon landings were a vast hoax instituted as propaganda by the U.S. government and produced on a large sound-stage. When Sibrel called Aldrin a coward and liar, Aldrin punched him in the face. Later, the Beverly Hills district attorney declined to charge Aldrin after witnesses claimed Sibrel was the aggressor.
The next year, Aldrin appeared on Sacha Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" (HBO, 2003-04), answering good-naturedly when Cohen's clueless Ali G character asked him if the moon people were friendly to him, or how he responded to conspiracy theories that the moon d s not exist. In addition to his penchant for comedic appearances, the 21st century would see Aldrin in a raft of retrospective documentaries: "The Truth Behind the Moon Landings" (Channel 5, 2003), "Apollo 11: The Untold Story" (Discovery, 2006), "The Wonder of It All" (2007), the acclaimed feature "In the Shadow of the Moon" (2007), the miniseries "When We Left the Earth" (Discovery, 2008), and "Reaching Tranquility: The 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing" (2009). He also expanded his pop cultural footprint in 2008 with a consumer products brand, Buzz Aldrin Rocket Hero, via his new company StarBuzz, which sold licenses to companies such as model-maker Revell and apparel-maker Lucky Brand. In a strange turn of events, Aldrin was also one of 11 celebrities named to the season 10 cast of "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ), teaming with professional dancer Ashly DelGrosso. The 80-year-old Aldrin joined the likes of the much younger Pamela Anderson, Shannen Doherty and Olympic champion Evan Lysacek.