Review: Return to Earth by Buzz Aldrin

This week’s Throwback Thursday isn’t a classic by any stretch, but it’s one of the most intriguing books I’ve read. Return to Earth is Buzz Aldrin’s fascinating autobiography.

Return to Earth takes off as Aldrin splashes down, and embarks on a world tour following mankind’s first steps on the moon. It’s a weird place to start to a biography – a kind of anti climax for an opening, where you’d expect to read about Buzz’s early life, Air Force career, entry into the Space Programme, and first steps on the moon (along with Neil Armstrong).

Instead it kicks off with this world tour – with Aldrin, Collins, Armstrong and their wives meeting heads of state, receiving awards and making speeches. We see the incredible stress their families were under (Astronaut Wife should have been a paid position at NASA considering the sacrifices they made), and how they managed to cope with a situation they were ill suited for – at least they were trained for landing on the moon.

The strange opening pays off later when you reach the heart of Return to Earth – Buzz’s long suffering battle with depression. Going through 200 odd pages where the three astronauts and their families were in each other’s pockets for so long is almost claustrophobic. When this is put in the context of the immense amount of work the Apollo 11 crew had to put in to get to the moon (single-minded doesn’t even begin to describe their focus), Buzz’s depression almost seems a foregone conclusion – in fact, you wonder how so few astronauts were depressed. It is fascinating to see close up.

If the order feels messy, Aldrin makes no attempt to make life easier with a nice clean writing style. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to much from Aldrin on this front – he’s a gifted pilot and an astronaut, engineering and orbital mechanics are his forte rather than writing (he’s not hiding this either, right up front he writes, “for the written section I labored long and mightily, as is customary”).

It seems to randomly move between seemingly unrelated topics – like when he’s sat in the Gemini 9 mission in space, and the text veers off suddenly with a discussion on Velcro.

Strangely, this madness is endearing in the end. You start to appreciate Buzz’s quirks, and treat it like a conversation rather than a book – like they’re coming out in the order they popped into his mind.

In the end, I guess this is one for the fans only. I enjoyed it all the same, but there are probably better Buzz Aldrin books out there somewhere.

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