Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Santiago Ramos Reviews Buzz Aldrin's 'Magnificent Desolation'

Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon

Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham


336 pages / $27.00

Reviewed by Santiago RamosMediaPicSept18

A sure sign of the decline of our Republic will come on the day when our schoolchildren no longer dream of becoming astronauts.

Not because these children would no longer be revering one of the greatest achievements of their country - though that is true. Even though the United States will one day suffer the same fate that befalls all countries this side of the New Jerusalem, it would be an easy wager to make that one of the things that the history books will record about us is our country’s space program.

Rather, the more important thing here is the desire to go to the moon, the same desire behind art and mysticism and the Everest climbers and the Pyramid builders. It is a spiritual drive that is as proper to humanity as its own flesh. Once we’ve lost it, we’re finished. We have an innate sense that it is good to know the universe because the universe, in some way, is for us. And after exploring it, we can return home and in a quiet hour understand the Psalmist a little better:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

On the one hand, we are so puny; on the other, we are so wonderful. What are we?

Astronaut and moonlander Buzz Aldrin does not come off as a conventional religious believer in his recently published memoir, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, but he is nevertheless in touch with this desire that is at the core of wonder and the religious sense. He did, it is true, have Communion—bread and wine—on the surface of the moon, right after landing (Buzz is—was?—an Episcopalian). And it is also true that he has changed his religious beliefs somewhat since then. But the sheer awe he experienced hopping around the Moon, and the beauty of the Earth as seen from beyond it, did not turn him into a facile, poindexter atheist like Richard Dawkins. He became more “spiritual,” and while that is not a very intellectually rigorous category, he did feel what the Psalmist writes about—at once puny and wonderful, and still asking why.

This is the public service that Aldrin continues to make for his country, which he has already served so much. He wants people to keep asking why, to keep desiring for more, and, in his case this means, concretely, to want to go to Mars. But people with less passion for wonder, instead ask him to make a pragmatic case of the utility of space exploration. Testifying before Congress, Aldrin tried to make the case for space travel:

“We are not going to justify going to Mars by what we bring back. Whether there is life or not shouldn’t be a determining factor in whether we go to Mars. We are going to make a commitment and carry that out. And what is that commitment going to do to this world today that is so focused on the immediate payoff—the attitude of ‘What’s in it for me right now?’….People want to journey into space; they want to share that participation. Just ask them. I go around and they want to know when they can get into space. And it is doable.”

Perhaps not the most philosophically savvy defense of exploration, but Aldrin’s heart is bigger than his words. He has stood on the Moon (!), and he wants as many people as possible to feel what he felt, or something close to it. But this exchange in Congress comes near the end of the book, after Aldrin has developed a nonprofit organization called SpaceShare, which promotes the cause for space. The book begins with an amazing account of the moonwalk, of all the things going through Aldrin’s brain from liftoff to landing on the Moon to liftoff again and back to Earth. Several times I had to remind myself that I was reading a memoir and not a science fiction novel. There is no lack of suspense: see how, in the clutch, Aldrin and Neil Armstrong fix a broken circuit breaker in the Lunar Module. These were smart, tough guys, and it is interesting to see how, in spite of themselves, they also became poets in the face of the awesomeness that they were experiencing. Armstrong’s proclamation, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” and Aldrin’s oxymoron, “Magnificent desolation,” should be taught in high school American Literature courses as two of the most significant poems of the last century.

Beginning the book with the main event might seem like a bad idea, because the reader might drop the book after reading about it. But Aldrin does this for a reason, forcing the reader feel what he felt, the same post-Moonshot depression that he felt. Because, with all his intense longing to go to the Moon, and after having that longing fulfilled—what’s next? Chapter four begins this way: “What now? I said aloud to myself as I chewed on the tip of the pipe I rarely smoked…What’s left?” The world is not enough, and the moon is not enough. That’s just how we were made.

After this follow the ups and downs in Aldrin’s life—the alcoholism, but also the finding of love. We see Aldrin with his solar visor raised up. He is human like us, and his heart is just like ours, though it might be flaring up a little more intensely due to that trip he took in 1969. He finds a path later in the book, in part through his mission to promote a manned landing on Mars. We should hope for him what we hope for ourselves, something that we can’t really name or even conceive, that is even greater than a trip to the Moon—the long journey home, fulfilled.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.