Reflecting on the various stages of my life, elementary school ranks pretty high on the dreary list. The fifth - grade was especially tedious and my only incentive for attending class was to flirt with an adorable redhead named Brenda. When not chasing her I frequented a small back area of the school's modest library where I buried myself with books on space travel. It was during these periods of solitude that I fancied myself sitting atop a Saturn V rocket and blasting off to the moon. Not only would the scenario impress Brenda, It would distance me from the playground bullies.
My passion for the space program commenced at age six when astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. From that point on, I watched every single manned space launch from the Mercury program to the final Apollo 17 moon mission which I was fortunate to see and photograph at age 15. Because my family resided on the West Coast, I regularly dragged myself out of bed at dawn and sat cross-legged in front of our television screen with a plastic Revell model spacecraft at my side. Mom and dad always knew that my frown foreshadowed a scrubbed liftoff by news anchor Walter Cronkite.
For a ten-year old, I was pretty acquainted with NASA's missions and I could hold a very informed dialog on anything ranging from how many pounds of thrust the Saturn F1 main booster engine produced to the inner workings of the command module emergency escape system. My knowledge even extended to the Omega Speedmaster chronograph and modified Hasselblad 500 EL cameras the astronauts used. What I was not aware of at the time is that the primary Lunar Module descent engine was being manufactured by Rocketdyne only a short distance from my home in Canoga Park, California. Knowing that, I would surely have pounded on their gates for a tour.
On July 16, 1969, a similar Rocketdyne liquid-fueled rocket engine blasted a shower of rocks across Mare Tranquility as two anxious men settled on the Moon's surface. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had manually overridden their computer to avoid a hazardous crater and guided the Lunar Module to a safe area with 45-seconds to spare. Their aluminum pressurized spacecraft was so thin that a dropped tool could have potentially punctured the skin. Though NASA usually got things right, my young brain could never fathom the docking and landing procedures, especially orbiting the moon. It just seemed doomed to failure with the technology at the time. Nevertheless, Buzz Aldrin settled any doubt to that notion with a series of ladder jumps in the moon's weak gravity. How could I ever have dreamed, that the two of us would be sharing a private breakfast 35-years later.
Sometimes it's fun to grasp how many places I've worked around the world. Thailand, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Germany, Florida, Nevada, Indiana, California and Hawaii. Though I never imagined myself living on an island for thirteen-years, working as a staff photographer on The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper afforded me a variety of stories which encompassed everything from boring food shoots to photographing the President of the United States. The paper's newsroom was typically sleepy at dawn with only a couple of editors refilling coffee mugs. But on the morning of July 3, 2004 the silence ceased when I saw the name Buzz Aldrin scribbled on a white assignment board. I clenched my fist in the air and cheered … “yeah!”
Fellow reporter and friend Will Hoover and I first met during a story about caskets and though I can't recall the specific angle, it had something to do with a high school teacher who wheeled them into classrooms. Hoover, who fondly shares his past as a country and western singer, has the innate ability to muster some of the most interesting stories I have ever photographed and his disarming folksy manner could bag an interview with Genghis Khan. But undeniably, his exclusive interview with Buzz Aldrin on-board the Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of Aloha berthed in Honolulu Harbor was one of the highlights of my career.
When Hoover and I arrived on the ship's topside later that morning, he must have chuckled watching me frantically search the outer dining area for the astronaut. Then suddenly, a familiar face approached me and said “Well, you are probably looking for me”. After introducing myself to Buzz Aldrin, I thought to myself, “My God, I just shook hands with a man who walked on the surface of the moon”!
Hoover finally caught up and we all seated ourselves at an overly bright yellow and green table. Buzz ordered a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon much to the horror of his wife Alice who feared for his cholesterol. While anxiously waiting for an entry point to quiz Buzz, I secretly wanted to sideline my two Nikon's and just talk to Buzz. Though my previous photo assignments from around the world had included dignitaries from Henry Kissinger to Margaret Thatcher and allowed chatting sessions with several celebrities, nobody impressed like Aldrin.
Buzz shared a dramatic story about Neil Armstrong, who accidentally broke the lunar lander engine arming switch while exiting the spacecraft, which could potentially have made a Lunar liftoff impossible. How morbidly comical that would have been after the United States spent a trillion dollars only to tragically fail because of a cheap plastic part. Fortunately, Armstrong averted disaster by shoving a felt tip marker pen into the breaker allowing Buzz to trigger the Lunar Module Ascent Engine thus launching the duo to safety. Though Aldrin procured the pen as a souvenir, he nevertheless felt that NASA should have bestowed a small piece of moon rock to every astronaut who participated in the journey.
During a pause in Hoover's interview, I quickly inquired “Buzz, can I ask you a question?” “Sure” he replied. “When you took off from the moon, you were standing in the Lunar Module ... right?” “Yeah”. Buzz answered. “How did the acceleration affect your knees on takeoff?” I asked. He replied “Well, it was not very much because the moon's gravity is only one sixth that of earth”. Though my question was in nervous haste, my hidden greed was to have an all night, sit down BBQ with him where my first question would have been “What was going through your mind while standing on the moon and knowing your life depended on the upper stage accent engine firing?”
At the time of the interview, Aldrin's stamina and mental clarity at age 74 was remarkable. I presented the astronaut with a black and white signed postcard of my “Tank Man” photograph which the Honolulu Academy of The Arts had produced for a previous lecture. “Wow! - - You shot that?” Buzz exclaimed. “Well, I have something for you” he quipped. His hand reached into a front shirt pocket and retrieved a color postcard of himself standing on the surface of the moon which he then autographed with a blue marker. Talk about being topped ...
Breakfast with Buzz is the closest I will ever come to reaching the moon nonetheless it fulfilled a childhood dream that will always be with me. As Hoover and I wrapped up the hour-long interview, Buzz grabbed an apple from the dining room table and we all headed on deck for a souvenir snapshot with the Lunar legend. I gave Aldrin one last long handshake and as we stood staring at each other, he looked down with a grin and shook his head as if thinking … “groupie”.