Monday, October 05, 2009

A Very Unusual Man Indeed

This past Saturday I met a man who is a member of one of the smallest, most special groups of people on earth. He has truly been where no human being had been before, and was one of the first people to do this extraordinary thing. This guy has been one of my heroes for pretty much literally as long as I can remember, and I've wanted to meet him (and his fellow travelers) ever since.

So here I am with Apollo XI and Gemini astronaut, Buzz Aldrin (Wikipedia), who landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. Sure, Neil stepped out first, and we all remember his great quote, but the Apollo program was a team effort - like all successful human endeavor, something that a lot of people seem to forget. Buzz and Neil didn't get there on their own. They couldn't even have done it with just CM Pilot Michael Collins who stayed in orbit, or with just the Mission Control team back in Houston; it took hundreds of thousands of people working directly and indirectly on the project, as well as over 100 million US Taxpayers to come up with the cash. It's important to remember that. There aren't really any solo heroes, ever.

Anyway, this guy walked on the moon. His footprints are still there, and barring any further human (or asteroid impact) disturbance of Tranquility base, should be visible there for millions of years. Those prints will almost certainly outlast anything else humans have built here on earth. They may outlast humanity itself. This is a big deal.

I was only 3 1/2 years old that day, but I remember - just barely - watching it on TV with my family. Even at that age I knew it was a big deal, everyone was excited about it. I've followed the space program ever since, and what I do for a living (I draw spaceships, some of the time) now is certainly as directly related to real space exploration as it is to fiction like Star Trek. To be honest, if I ever had a chance, I would move to the moon as a colonist with pretty much zero hesitation. That may change in the future, and of course it's extremely unlikely I'd ever get that chance, but if you said right now, "Jeff we have a place on the moonbase for you," I would say "let's go!" (Don't tell my wife, okay?)

Only 11 other people besides Buzz have ever done this thing, have ever looked up from that dusty, dry, barren surface back to see our home world hanging in the sky, small enough to block out with one hand, able to see from a distance all the life we know of simultaneously (well, half of it anyway). Of those 12 people, only 9 are still alive. Most of them don't appear often in public; Neil Armstrong is a notoriously private person. These are not people you're just randomly going to run into at the bus station.

Buzz, on the other hand, is fairly relentless in his public advocacy for space exploration and human spaceflight. He's written a number of books about his experiences as an astronaut and other parts of his life. He's currently on a book tour for his recent book Magnificent Desolation and a children's book, Look to the Stars. A couple of months ago, he was up at the Griffith Observatory, which is very close to my home, but we wound up deciding not to go for a number of reasons. Fortunately, we got another chance, as he came back and did a book signing at a shop in Santa Monica.

Some random odd things I have in common with Buzz: we were both born in New Jersey; we both have some Scottish ancestry; we're both baptized Presbyterian (he's way more religious about it than I am, heh); we've both had to deal with clinical depression; we have the same wedding anniversary, Valentine's Day. Neato!

So there I am with Buzz Aldrin. Because of the nature of the appearance, there was just no time for me to sit down and ask him the questions that I'd love to ask him. He was just saying hello and signing books. So I just pretty much said hello and had him sign some books. I did, however, bring him a small present: prints of two of my comics, both moon related (here and here). In the above picture, you can see them on the table in front of him. He was appreciative, and you know what? He gave me publishing advice, the name of his European publisher and where to contact them.

How cool is that? He's a classy guy. I hope he enjoys the comics.

Oh yeah, what would I really want to ask Buzz? The first question might seem like an odd one. I would like to ask him, as one of the few people who has truly been isolated from all the rest of us... well, can you feel all of us as one "thing" from that far away? I mean, think about it, no matter where you go on earth, or even in orbit on the ISS or Shuttle, you can't get more than a few thousand miles (in a straight line, drawn through the earth) from large masses of people. Even if you calculate it using the earth's diameter plus a LEO orbit, we're talking only about maybe 8300 miles. The moon is 30 times farther away than that. One would think that if there is some kind of "spiritual energy" coming from us all, that being surrounded by all that empty space and no other life within many millions of miles, you'd be able to feel it. And since Buzz is a pretty religious guy, he'd actually be the right guy to ask. Seems to me that he'd be very likely to be paying attention to that sort of thing. Even though there were only about half the people on earth at that point than there are now, wouldn't it be noticeable? Out of all the immediate experiences you'd feel on the way to and from the moon, that's the one I wonder about the most. And also what it's like to be in 1/6 G; I can imagine that would really drive it home that you are not "home" in any way.

Anyway, yeah I'm happy. It's really something to be able to cross lives, even in a very small way, with people who are part of some of the most important and interesting things that human beings have ever done. Check another one off the bucket list.

If you ever get a chance to meet Buzz or any of these extraordinary people, make the time to do it. It's worth it. Thanks for being awesome, Buzz!

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