This story appears in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
History records Buzz Aldrin as the second man to set foot on the moon. At age 86, the former astronaut is still trying new feats. He has appeared on television on The Big Bang Theory and Dancing With the Stars. He has written nine books, including No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon. And he continues to urge Earth’s inhabitants to press farther into space.
Why is it important for us to keep exploring space, to even colonize Mars?
We are stagnating on Earth. We are reverting to the past. We are not pioneering. We are not looking forward. And if we do not explore, we will expire.
What has held us back? A variety of things, including aging astronauts, public apathy, the lack of exciting activities in space, budget constraints, and leaders who underappreciate such aspirations.
Do you like any of the films set in space—and do you think there really are other beings out there?
I liked The Martian. I also thought that Gravity was good. At one point in my space career, I could have been like George Clooney’s character, free to maneuver on my space walk—but NASA insisted on me having a tether. As for extraterrestrial life, Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Some believe that the monolith on Phobos [a small moon of Mars] had intelligence behind its structure, for example. But we don’t have the extraordinary evidence right now.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from being an astronaut?
It has evolved from when I returned from the moon to today. You have to remember that I wasn’t named an astronaut right away. So when I look back on things, what I remember is the process. The process of becoming an astronaut and going [to the moon] taught me the lesson of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed …