Last month, I met Buzz Aldrin at the inaugural Llamasoft conference on supply chain management held on June 29th at Ann Arbor. This was the first time I had spoken at this type of corporate event and I must confess it was really due to both the charm and kindness of Llamasoft founder and director Don Hicks who gave me the opportunity to meet a living legend. Don is a space enthusiast and had also wanted to meet Aldrin. I, too, was thrilled to meet the moonwalker as I had a nostalgia for the Apollo 11 landing as I remember watching it as a kid growing up in New Zealand.
I had told people months in advance that I was meeting Buzz Aldrin which seemed to give me some kudos. By pure chance, the night before I left, I met a member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands who just happened to be a space fan and told me that I should read the book, “Moon Dust” by Andrew Smith. In retrospect, that would have been fitting preparation for what was a surreal experience.
On turning up at Ann Arbor, Don told me that everything was in place but that Buzz had been in a bit of a domestic situation having just left the “love of his life,” in an acrimonious split. I told Don that I was really excited but also on a mission to get Buzz to sign a copy of his autobiography for someone I had just met that would really appreciate it. While walking to the bar, we passed the original Borders bookstore which started in Ann Arbor and Don told me that I could pick up a copy in the morning. I wondered whether Buzz would even turn up.
The following day, I made my way to the conference and started to prepare. At the registration desk, there was a copy of Buzz’s autobiography, “Magnificent Desolation,” awaiting me. What I did not know at the time was that Don had given me his own personal copy so that I could get the autograph – (he’s that kinda guy!). After the initial session had been opened by the first keynote speaker, supply chain guru John Gattarno, I headed to the green room to await my turn. And there, seated at the table working his way through a salad was the very dapper-dressed Dr. Buzz Aldrin with his personal assistant. There was no-one else in the room and I immediately felt awkward. The look on the assistant face as I entered was protective as I assume she thought I was an autograph collector. I introduced myself as a fellow speaker which was met with a little incredulity but I held my ground and attempted to make small talk with a man who has walked on the moon. I don’t think I have ever felt so self-conscious in the presence of another human being.
Buzz was not exactly in the most convivial of moods. I think he thought my dress code of black t-shirt and designer wear jacket was a bit too rock star. Still it was quite clear that he was the centre of attention – and frankly, why not? He wasn’t interested in how the brain works or the development of causal reasoning. I felt I was flailing. Then thankfully Don joined us and Buzz explained that he would not meet the delegates personally or do any signings. Basically he was off limits to the rest of the conference. I now understand that he does alot of these corporate events. I also remember the famous incident when some moon landing conspiracy theorist confronted the moonwalker and Buzz clocked him a right hook when he would not get out of the astronaut’s way and called him a liar.
Being a moonwalker in the public eye comes at a cost and contrary to what the general public think, NASA astronauts are not rich. During the missions they only earned the standard pilot salary during the program and none ended up being very wealthy afterwards. Buzz still has his NASA travel expenses claim voucher for the Apollo 11 mission from Houston to Pacific Ocean via the Moon. Total = $33.31. So many of them survive today on the fees from public appearances and corporate events. None so more than Buzz who has basically turned himself into a brand. I was completely unaware of this when I asked if he would do me the honor of signing his autobiography for someone I knew who would really appreciate it. Buzz did not look too forthcoming until Don explained that the person in question was a very famous musician. This did the trick and Buzz not only signed the book but wrote some enigmatic dedication. I was relieved but did not dare to ask for another for myself or give him a signed copy of my book – what was I thinking?
Anyway, when Buzz went onstage to give his keynote, he was the epitomé of the professional speaker. It was well orchestrated and timed to perfection. It began with the inevitable searing chords of “Also Sparch Zarathustra,” and a 8 minute video montage of the Apollo 11 mission. When the multimedia experience came to an end, the great man walked onto the stage to thunderous applause. He then delivered a flawless, charming and frankly Jeykell & Hydian talk in comparison to the man I met backstage. Whatever one might say about Buzz, he commands the room and oozes charisma. Just hearing about the whole mission again certainly brought a lump to my throat.
Anyway that was my Buzz moment. Over the next week I marvelled at the autograph and began to read his autobiography. The beginning was great giving a real insight in that amazing day they landed on the moon. I was surprised to learn that Buzz performed a communion on landing – something that did not go down too well with Neil Armstrong. There was less about his fellow companions but I assumed that this was simply the perspective of an autobiography. Then the remainder of the book turned out to be a self-confessional about his depression on returning to Earth, the failure of his marriage to his first wife, his frustration of being “put on show” and the refusal of NASA to adopt his ideas for future space travel.
So I finished the book. I was impressed even though I was now seeing a different side to one of my childhood heroes. (If I had read more about the space program then I should not have been surprised as Buzz had had a difficult post-moon time). But then he was now only one of nine moonwalkers left and soon they will all be gone. For a moment I thought that I should hold onto this autographed relic. But then that was not why I wanted the book signed in the first place. So this week I sent the book to someone who I thought would really appreciate it.
In its place, I began to read “Moon Dust” – the book that had been recommended to me. In comparison, to Buzz’s autobiography, this book written by a British journalist Andrew Smith who tracked down the remaining astronauts, was an honest, even-handed account of the whole Apollo experience as seen from the different perspectives. We learn that unlike Buzz who courted publicity and self-promotion, Neil Armstrong decided to keep a low profile and maintain his privacy. In doing so he seems to have retained the gravitas that one would come to expect from the first man on the moon. However, of all the moonwalkers that Andrew Smith met, my favorite is 4th man on the moon, Alan Bean from the Apollo 12 mission, who went on to become a highly collectible contemporary artist who depicts lunar events. The one here of Neil Armstrong is completely fictitious – according to Moon Dust, while Neil took the famous reflector visor picture of his companion Buzz Aldrin, Buzz was too busy to take Armstrong’s picture.
One of the things that tickles me pink is that in his works of art, he mixes in fragments of the badges and insignia that he wore on the moon to infuse each piece with some moon dust. Maybe I should send him a signed copy of SuperSense.