As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two human beings to set foot on the moon, were describing the scene for the folks back home, Aldrin called it a “magnificent desolation.” He wasn’t necessarily thinking of the implications of the latter word, but in using it as the title for Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home From The Moon—his memoir tied to the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission—Aldrin acknowledges that in his own life, desolation has dominated over magnificence. Beginning with the launch and proceeding through the harrowing, thrilling tightrope act of the moon landing in the first few chapters, Aldrin leads off with the most significant event of his life, the one that changed everything for billions of Earth’s citizens. In what follows, however, he explores the subsequent depression and alcoholism that dogged him for decades on end. Now happily married for the third time and promoting space tourism to a U.S. government disinclined for big boondoggle dreams, Aldrin reveals perhaps more than he intends as he tries to put a triumphant gloss on his 40 years in the public eye.
It’s difficult to imagine any more stirring evocation of humanity’s first trip to the moon than the opening of this book. Aldrin and co-writer Ken Abraham seamlessly meld familiar NASA understatement with a keen sense of the miraculous. For example, as Aldrin backed out of the lunar module, he made a quip about not locking the door behind him, but in truth, he had to be careful not to close it all the way, lest any air left behind cause a pressure differential that would make it difficult or impossible to push the hatch inward when it was time to return. Almost everything Aldrin, Armstrong, and Michael Collins did in those scant few days of lunar exploration was being done for the very first time. That sense of uncharted territory elevates the rest of the book, as Aldrin struggles with loss of purpose, denial about his drinking problem, resentment over the way NASA exploited his celebrity, and inability to control his roving eye. The story is familiar; what makes it gripping is the harsh reflected light of the moon, as it were, throwing all these pedestrian human foibles into high relief. Talk about a life that has nowhere to go but downhill. For someone who stepped on the moon at age 39, what worlds are left to conquer?
Aldrin’s memoir goes downhill, too, it must be said. Yet the very fact that the last two-thirds of this book lacks a strong storyline—no mission-driven cascade of accomplishments or even self-realizations—seems instructive in itself. The Apollo mission’s iconic status comes from the archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey. As Aldrin fights to fit the rest of his life, including the good woman whom he portrays as saving him from his demons, into that pattern, readers can’t help but question whether he’s being honest with himself, and whether the last chapter of that story has really been written. On the public level, there’s no triumph to his appearances before Congress to insist that only tourist dollars can fund the next generation of space vehicles, and to advocate his beloved “cycler” concept (deep-space vehicles in constant motion between Earth orbit and Mars, leaving only planetary ascent and descent stages to be handled as needed for individual missions). And Aldrin’s inability to hide his frustration that his chance to affect the space program is slipping away makes for fascinating, saddening reading. Even though Magnificent Desolation is only a fraction of the great astronaut memoir it could have been, the rest, as a rambling, all-too-human portrait of a life still in flux, plumbs unintended depths.