July 15, 2009 at 11:46 PM ET
Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin pose for their official
portrait before the Apollo 11 mission of July 1969. All three men were born in 1930.
Every five years, the three men of Apollo 11 get together to face the cameras and answer questions about the greatest adventure of the 20th century: humanity's first landing on the surface of another world. Now it's been 40 years since that historic touchdown on July 20, 1969, and the spotlight is once more shining on the famous trio.
The biggest stars of NASA's glory days aren't getting any younger. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are all a year or two away from turning 80. Some might wonder when the "last hurrah" for the space effort's Greatest Generation will come, but the astronauts of Apollo 11 still seem hale and hearty. I wouldn't bet against all three of them living to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their most famous flight.
So what have they been doing since their last stint in the spotlight, five years ago?
One big job has been managing all the activities being planned for the 40th anniversary: For years, Aldrin has been calling upon his fellow astronauts to gather together to promote a "Lunar Renaissance" of exploration. Although the appearances planned over the next few days are a little more ad hoc than what Aldrin had in mind, they nevertheless give America's pioneering astronauts and space historians the biggest stage they've had in at least five years.
Washington, D.C., is the main venue. To mark Thursday's 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's launch, NASA Headquarters hosted a panel discussion about the Apollo effort's legacy, released restored video from the Apollo 11 moonwalk, and began airing nine days' worth of Apollo 11 audio transmissions (from pre-launch to splashdown). Meanwhile, the National Air and Space Museum opened an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Apollo 12 astronaut/artist Alan Bean.
On Saturday night, Aldrin will be among the narrators at a Kennedy Center musical tribute to Apollo. An "extremely limited" number of free tickets are to be handed out that morning.
The main event takes place Sunday night, when Aldrin takes his place alongside Apollo 11 crewmates Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins for a lecture at the National Air and Space Museum. Apollo flight director Chris Kraft and former senator-astronaut John Glenn are also due to attend. Although the event is sold out, you should be able to catch it on the NASA TV Webcast.
Monday is the big 40th anniversary of the first moon landing and moonwalk. To mark the occasion, a whole array of Apollo astronauts (including Aldrin) are due to take questions at a NASA Headquarters news briefing at 9:30 a.m. ET. Lots of other 40th-anniversary events are planned around the country.
Stephen Jaffe / AFP-Getty Images file
Then-President George W. Bush (second from left) poses with Apollo 11
astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during an Oval
Office meeting on July 21, 2004.
Neil Armstrong: Not that reclusive
Neil Armstrong is the marquee name - chiefly because he was the first man to take any kind of "small step" on the moon, but also because of the mystique that's grown up around the soft-spoken Ohioan.
Armstrong was so turned off by profiteering and forgeries that he stopped signing autographs in 1994 (with a few exceptions for charity). That's only boosted the interest in memorabilia linked to Armstrong, such as the $10.50 check that Armstrong made out to a friend at NASA on the day of Apollo 11's launch. That check was auctioned off in an online sale ending Wednesday night, with the final selling price adding up to $27,350.
The mystique has sometimes led to a public perception that the first moonwalker has turned into a recluse, holing up on the 200-acre farm he bought in 1971 near Lebanon, Ohio. Yes, he hangs out at the farm, but Armstrong also gets around.
"By the public, he's perceived as being more removed than he really is," said Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace Web site, who makes a study of the astronauts' comings and goings and the memorabilia they leave behind. "If you wanted to see him, you could find him."
Just last month, for example, Armstrong narrated Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" at a Cincinnati Pops concert. After Apollo 11, he taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati and sat on a wide variety of corporate boards - but over the past few years he's cut back on those academic and business activities.
Perhaps the biggest change in the past five years is that much more information about Armstrong's past life is becoming available - through James Hansen's authorized biography, "First Man," through a "60 Minutes" interview aimed at publicizing the book, and through the hundreds of boxes of personal papers that are being donated to Purdue University (some of which are going on display Monday).
Aldrin and Collins: The promoter and the painter
Even if Armstrong is a bit reticent about public appearances, his crewmate in the Apollo lunar module more than makes up for it. Buzz Aldrin has written three books in the past five years, including two books for children - "Reaching for the Moon" and "Look to the Stars" - and a fresh memoir titled "Magnificent Desolation."
"There hasn't been a day since his book came out that he hasn't had one or two events," Pearlman said. In addition to his book signings, personal appearances and endorsements, Aldrin has been pushing plans to get everyday people into space through a lottery-type system (spearheaded by his ShareSpace Foundation) and calling for NASA to switch its focus from the moon to Mars.
He has also found time to appear in the animated movie "Fly Me to the Moon," record a rap video and tweet to his followers on Twitter. "All done with book signing. Got to see the shuttle launch in the distance," he wrote Wednesday from Orlando, Fla.
The Apollo 11 veteran hardest to find in the public sphere may well be Michael Collins, the astronaut who circled the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the surface below. After leaving NASA in 1970, Collins spent a year as a State Department official, became the National Air and Space Museum's director, then became an aerospace executive and finally started his own consulting firm. Nowadays he lives the life of a retiree and a watercolor painter in Florida.
"His watercolors have been growing in popularity," Pearlman noted. Collins' favorite subjects are nature scenes, but he recently painted a series of Cape Canaveral space settings for the 40th anniversary. He has also revised his memoir, "Carrying the Fire." (Collins will be signing books at the Smithsonian on Sunday, as will Aldrin and Bean.)
Collins may not be as outgoing as, say, Buzz Aldrin. (Who is?) But many see him as the wittiest member of the Apollo 11 crew, and arguably the best writer. Aldrin himself told me a couple of years ago that Collins was "the life of our mission." Back in those days, Aldrin said, "Neil and I were ... a little reserved and not quite as jovial particularly."
A bit of that wit comes through in the statement from Collins that NASA issued Wednesday in lieu of an interview. As seen from the moon, Earth looked fragile 40 years ago and probably would look even more fragile today, Collins said:
... When we flew to the moon, our population was 3 billion; today it has more than doubled and is headed for 8 billion, the experts say. I do not think this growth is sustainable or healthy. The loss of habitat, the trashing of oceans, the accumulation of waste products - this is no way to treat a planet.
NASA: You are starting to sound a little grumpy. Are you grumpy?
Collins: At age 78, yes, in many ways. Some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and the inflation of heroism.
Q: But aren't you both?
A: Not me. Neither.
Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: "above and beyond the call of duty."
Celebrities? What nonsense, what an empty concept for a person to be, as my friend the great historian Daniel Boorstin put it, "known for his well-known-ness." How many live-ins, how many trips to rehab, maybe - wow - you could even get arrested and then you would really be noticed. Don't get me started.
Q: So, if I wanted to sum you up, I should say "grumpy"?
A: No, no, lucky! Usually, you find yourself either too young or too old to do what you really want, but consider: Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin 1930, and Mike Collins 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and we were successful in them. But in my own case at least, it was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck. Put LUCKY on my tombstone.
Q: OK, but getting back to the space program. What's next?
A: I hope Mars. It was my favorite planet as a kid and still is. As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is. It is the closest thing to a sister planet that we have found so far. I worry that at NASA's creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance. That's about all I have to say.
Q: I understand you have become a recluse.
A: I'm not sure that's the word. I think of the Brown Recluse, the deadliest of spiders, and I have a suntan, so perhaps. Anyway, it's true I've never enjoyed the spotlight, don't know why, maybe it ties in with the celebrity thing.
Q: So, how do you spend your time?
A: Running, biking, swimming, fishing, painting, cooking, reading, worrying about the stock market, searching for a really good bottle of cabernet under ten dollars. Moderately busy.
Q: No TV?
A: A few nature programs, and the Washington Redskins, that's about it.
Q: Do you feel you've gotten enough recognition for your accomplishments?
A: Lordy, yes, Oodles and oodles.
Q: Oodles?? But don't you have any keen insights?
A: Oh yeah, a whole bunch, but I'm saving them for the 50th.
More on the Apollo 11 anniversary:
This item was last updated at 8:15 p.m. ET July 16.
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