Magnificent Desolation

Buzz Aldrin’s Magnificent Desolationthe second volume of his autobiography, cowritten with Ken Abrahamtakes its name from the words he used to describe the lunar landscape during his historic walk on the Moon. The book is unusual in that it overlaps significantly with Aldrin’s first autobiography. The first eight chapters of Magnificent Desolation cover the same period as the first three and last four chapters of Return to Earth (1973; cowwritten with Wayne Warga). However, there is some justification for the overlap. First, the high point of Aldrin’s life was his two-hour walk on the Moon in 1969, so both books include the event. Second, although the first book described his initial bouts with depression, the second book recounts his continuing struggles, so repeating his account of the first episodes provides context for the later ones. Third, while he described episodes of binge drinking in his first book, Aldrin was still in a state of denial regarding his alcoholism at the time he wrote it. Thus, though the second book may recount many of the same incidents as the first, it does so from a different perspective and to different purpose.

Although Aldrin became famous for his achievements as an astronaut, Magnificent Desolation is really about his lifelong battle with depression and alcoholism, which caused the breakups of his first two marriages. The first three chapters of the book, describing the first moon landing, are really just a prologue, and the landing is covered in greater detail in other books, especially First on the Moon: A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. (1970) by Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin. First on the Moon also provides some biographical details, especially regarding Aldrin’s contributions to the space program, that are not found in his own two books.

Including three chapters on the lunar landing provides a key to understanding Aldrin. Like most astronauts, Aldrin is highly competitive, so the idea of being number two at anything is anathema to him. The decision for Neil Armstrong to be the first person to walk on the Moon and Aldrin to be the second was based on the practical problem of how best to exit the lunar module while wearing spacesuits. Aldrin described sharing the vessel with Armstrong as similar to two large football players sharing a tent designed for two Cub Scouts. It was simply easier for the one closer to the hatch to go first, and Armstrong’s duty station placed him in that position. Although Aldrin could intellectually understand the decision, it has always bothered him emotionally that he was number two by nineteen minutes.

Aldrin’s depression may have been hereditary. Both his mother and his maternal grandfather committed suicide, and both Armstrong and command module pilot Michael Collins had an easier time adjusting to life after the moon landing than Aldrin did. Armstrong became an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati and a consultant to Chrysler, and Collins went to work for the State Department and then moved to the Smithsonian Institution, where he became director of the National Air and Space Museum. There have never been any reports of either of them suffering from depression.

At first, it appeared that Aldrin was having a midlife crisis when he had an affair with a woman he calls Marianne in both Back to Earth and Magnificent Desolation. Those who have read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) will not be surprised to learn that Aldrin was among the astronauts who occasionally cheated on their wives. However, his affairs consisted of a series of one-night stands until he met Marianne after his mission to the Moon. As a result of his ongoing affair with Marianne, Aldrin seriously considered leaving his wife Joan, to whom he had been married since 1954. He could not make up his mind, however, and Marianne got tired of waiting and broke off their relationship.

In 1971, Aldrin left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to return to the Air Force, and he became commandant of the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. One of his predecessors in the job was Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier and the single most important figure in The Right Stuff. However, Aldrin had never been a test pilot himself and had never commanded so much as a fighter squadron. Instead, Aldrin had spent three and a half...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)