Most people know Buzz Aldrin as one of the first men to walk on the Moon. But as he explains in his memoir Return to Earth, the toughest struggles he faced came after his journey home.
As part of the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin was part of the “giant leap for mankind.” But while the world celebrated the moon landing, his fame came with a darker side. After the overwhelming reception of coming home and newfound fame, he struggled to find meaning in his marriage, career, and life as a whole.
Read the inspiring excerpt from Return to Earth, wherein Aldrin describes his battle with depression, crumbling marriage, and friendship with a nurse from the hospital. Even astronauts have to come back down to Earth … eventually.
Few men, particularly those who are motivated toward success, ever pause to reflect on their lives. They hurry forward with great energy, never pausing to look over their shoulders to see where they have been. If a man does this at all, it is usually near the end of his life, and it happens only because there is little else for him to do.
My depression forced me, at the age of 41, to stop and, for the first time, examine my life. The circumstances that brought about my study were extreme, but I now look upon this experience as one of the most valuable things I have done. It taught me to begin to live again, at an age when it is very possible to begin anew.
In the course of my treatment I began to realize certain priorities. I was able to say that what I really wanted was to live my life on my own. My entire adult life had been spent either in the Air Force or with NASA. It had, to a large extent, been a circumscribed and insulated life. I began to contemplate the possibility of leaving these things behind and striking out on my own as a civilian. In a few months, June 1972, I would complete 21 years of service. I was already eligible for retirement. The word “retirement” jolted me, since I was coming to regard it as a beginning, not a cessation. I decided to leave the nest I had occupied for so many years, the nest that had provided me with security and fame.
I was getting well. As I became more and more comfortable with myself, I became more aware of others.
There was a nurse on my floor, a slightly chubby and very pleasant woman by the name of Sharyn Farrell. When she had learned what I was actually in the hospital for, she undertook to cheer me up. She stuck a sticker on my pillow one morning—one of those round, smiling “be happy” stickers. She put another on the door of my room. She stopped by frequently to visit and see to my needs. She was determined to coax me back to good health.
When I finally began to feel better, I became considerably more aware of Sharyn as an individual. Behind that smiling exterior was, I suspected, a rather lonely woman. She was just beginning to recover from a romance gone sour.
In the course of the conversation one day, I asked what her big project at the moment was. She wanted to buy a new car and go on a diet. I encouraged her to do both and offered my assistance in buying the car. We pored over literature she collected from car dealers and settled on a Dodge.
A few days later, she came in looking discouraged. She had gone to look at the Dodge and discovered it cost a good bit more than she could afford.
One thing I believe I do well is haggling with car dealers. I told Dr. Sparks her story and said that I’d like to take her to a car dealer and do some dealing. He agreed. I was given a Saturday-afternoon pass.
We drove into San Antonio in her old clunker and I looked out and tried to see everything. It was a marvelous feeling to be out and around. We went directly to the Dodge dealer, and lucky for us, he recognized my name. The price came down, but not enough to suit me.
My uncle, Bob Moon, had bought a Mazda, the Japanese car with the rotary engine then just being introduced in America, and was very enthusiastic about it. I had driven it and was impressed both with its design and its economy. I dragged a disappointed Nurse Sharyn to the local Mazda dealer. The Dodge, she agreed, was still too much money. Good luck again, the Mazda man recognized my name. We drove one of his cars and were both impressed by it. I started haggling.
That afternoon we returned to the hospital in a new Mazda, which she named Buzz. It was a minor excursion that became significant as a new beginning.
Thanksgiving was less than a week away and I recalled another Thanksgiving when, after a long hospitalization with hepatitis, I had gratefully rejoined my family. I wanted to go home, if only for a day.
Dr. Sparks, of course, pointed up the duplicity of my wanting to go home and also wanting a divorce. Nevertheless, it all seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I intended to go home for Thanksgiving with my family and then go East to my father and Marianne. I was, of course, constructing another elaborate labyrinth, but it was one that gave me great hope for the future and I proceeded with it. It, too, would fall apart, but in a most unexpected way.
I asked for and was granted 10 days with certain provisos. If anything went wrong I was to return immediately. I was to spend time with my family and contact my father. Whenever I returned, I would stay in the hospital until we had examined the week in minute detail. I intended to do all that and more, and I felt certain I could handle the entire ten days easily.
We had a traditional family dinner, made plans for Christmas, and I proposed to Joan that she and I spend the week after Christmas in Acapulco without the kids this particular year. On the trip I was thinking of asking for a divorce. I fully expected she would be relieved. Had she not said during our first visit to the hospital in San Antonio that life with me was miserable? That she was thinking of a divorce, but would not make that decision until I was well? In gaining my freedom for a new beginning, I believed she would be getting hers.