Buzz Aldrin at 80: Still blasting off imagination everyday

Moonwalker No 2

This is one of history’s most famous photographs – and also one that is frequently misidentified. The man behind the space mask is a pioneer Moon walker – but it’s not Neil Armstrong. It’s the Buzz Aldrin, the second Man on the Moon.

According to space historians, all the famous photos from the first Moon landing are actually of Aldrin, with Armstrong reflected in the visor. This is an occupational hazard for those who take photos!

Buzz, who celebrated his 80th birthday on January 20, remains active and publicly engaged as he has been for most of the past 40 years since the first Moon landing in July 1969.

I’m following Buzz on his Twitter feed, from which I find that he’s just back from a trip to Antarctica with a National Geographic cruise, was at the premiere for the movie Avatar in mid December, and is now busy promoting his latest autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.

On his 80th birthday, Buzz asked fans to donate US$8 ot 80 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. And he will soon launch my iPhone App, Buzz Aldrin Portal to Science and Space Exploration.

This contrasts with Neil Armstrong, who is notoriously shy. He rarely speaks in public, turns down all media interviews and has also refused autograph requests since 1994.

Trained as an engineer, the two-time space traveller Buzz has been keeping up with new media pretty well. He has his own website, and launched his own YouTube channel only a month ago, where we can see his latest broadcast and film appearances. Through these and other means, he continues to promote causes like space exploration, science education and nurturing imagination.

To mark his 80th birthday, we present some of the many Buzz Aldrin videos available online.

First, here’s the moment when Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, in a partial restoration by NASA Video

Here’s the DVD Promo Overview of the latest Buzz video:

On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin shares his experience and predicts where man will go in the future. (Assciated Press video, 20 July 2009)

Buzz has long years of close association with popular culture. For example, the popular space ranger character Buzz Lightyear, in Pixar’s Toy Story movie series, is named after him. Apparently the film’s makers felt that he has “the coolest name of any astronaut.”

NASA video: Follow Buzz Lightyear on Spaceship Discovery

Finally, for comic relief, here’s the 2003 interview Buzz did with Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the British comedy series Ali G in da USA, during which Ali G referred to him as Buzz Lightyear:

P.S.: If you prefer a more detached look at the man and his career:
The Guardian, July 2009: The Man who fell to Earth

A Greek among geeks: Importance of asking the right questions…

Ask, ask and ask again....!
Ask, ask and ask again....!
Contrary to a popular perception, I’m not a geek. If anything, I’m closer to the ancient Greeks than geeks.

This is how I summed up my own self when talking to a group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this month.

I explained: I keep asking more questions than I can answer. The ancient Greeks did the same – they were the first to ask many fundamental questions in philosophy and science. They didn’t always get the answers right, but started quests that lasted for millennia…

As Ed Johnson recently wrote: “We have so many things to thank the Greeks for, from philosophy to democracy. They were the ones who established the first civilization, governed by free citizens. Individual liberty has been the basis of civilization ever since.”

It so happens that I recently completed 40 years in this business of playing the Greek. As I recalled a few weeks ago on the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, I had an early start in asking difficult, sometimes irritating, questions.

I’m fortunate to be welcomed among media practitioners as well as media researchers. I’m not a card-carrying member of either group, but I have great fun hobnobbing with both. This is what Irish journalist-cum-academic Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘having a foot in both graves’!

And I’m also grateful for being allowed into the community of geeks, especially of the IT, ICT and gadget-wielding kind.

One small step for (a) man, one giant memory for…me!

This can outlast us all...
The most expensively obtained footprint in history, this can outlast us all on the airless Moon...

When Neil Armstrong took that first ‘small step’ on to the Moon, at 10.56 pm Eastern Standard Time on 20 July 1969, it was already 21 July in many other parts of the world. It didn’t matter: day or night, East or West, people all over followed the mission’s progress over TV or radio. As Armstrong climbed down the lunar module’s ladder, more than 750 million people back on Earth had collectively held their breath.

This event holds special significance for me personally. It’s the earliest childhood memory that I have which can be pinned down to a specific date. And what a date!

I was a little over three years old at the time (as I like to put it, I’m the same age as Star Trek!). The year 1969 was already the most eventful yet in my (very short) life: in April that year, a younger sister was born. And at the beginning of July, I started in pre-school. I should think that at least the ‘headlines’ of such key events would be imprinted in my (usually good and sharp) memory. But those events are buried deep beneath the sediments of memory, and I have to turn to secondary (parental) sources to get any details.

What I do remember, to this day, is the excitement over the first Moon landing. My father was listening to the live radio broadcast on Voice of America. Sri Lanka had no television broadcasts then (that medium would arrive only 10 years later), so the only choice was to tune in to radio and imagine the pictures….or wait for the next day’s newspapers.

The crackling shortwave transmission came in loud and (mostly) clear through the large radiogram that sat in a prominent corner of our spacious living room. At over three feet in height, and encased in neatly polished wood, the instrument must have appeared formidable to little me. That was our solitary window to the outside world.

One of my earliest childhood photos...not longer after I took my own first 'small steps'
One of my earliest childhood photos, circa late 1968...not long after I took my own first 'small steps'
Although I realised something pretty important was happening, I didn’t understand what the commentary said. English was still an alien language – heck, at that tender age, I was still picking my mother tongue! But the inquisitive brat that I was, I asked my father to give me occasional summaries of what was going on. His school teacher experience must have helped him to distill the essence for me.

After all these years, I can’t remember too many details. But the highlights linger on, if only as distant headlines. Neil Armstrong’s one small step was taken. Neil and Buzz hopped around like kangaroos, enjoying the lower lunar gravity. They planted the American flag and set up scientific instruments. Then collected lunar soil samples. They often talked as they worked. Mission Control closely followed their every move…as did the whole world, a quarter of a million miles away.

Then it was time to head back. I would later find out that leaving the Moon after two and a half hours of exploration was a particularly tensed moment in the mission. The astronauts had one chance to rejoin the ‘mother ship’ orbiting the Moon. If their lunar module failed to take off, they’d be marooned on the Moon — with absolutely no hope of a rescue.

Having spent just about 1,000 days on Earth myself, I had no clue about any of these dangers. But the one ‘tough’ question I still remember asking my father is: “What could happen if the astronauts can’t return?”

I’m not sure what answer, if any, he gave me. His background was in history and languages, not science. But that sure was an indication that I had the knack for asking difficult, sometimes irritating, questions.

Forty years on, I still haven’t stopped.

Popular Mechanics July 2009 issue has some soundbites from the VOA’s Apollo 11 broadcast

‘Live from the Moon’…and then Lost on Earth: Story of Apollo broadcasts

Apollo still photos were much better than broadcast images: how come?
Apollo still photos were much better than broadcast images: how come?

In theory, it can happen to anyone recording moving images on tape or digital media: absent-mindedly or carelessly re-use the recording media, and thus lose the original content. If no copy exists, such an accident means an irrevocable loss.

But if the images were the most expensively shot in the whole of human history — literally costing billions of dollars and involving the genius and labour of half a million people over several years — we would expect these to be archived and preserved with great care, right?

Well, not necessarily — if the custodian is a government agency. On eve of the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11, the US space agency NASA dropped a bombshell: it admitted that the original recordings of that historic moment were accidentally erased years later.

One British newspaper called it “the scientific equivalent of recording an old episode of EastEnders over the prized video of your daughter’s wedding day”.

Can you see the men on the Moon? Well, only just...
Can you see the Moon on the Moon? Well, only just...
The loss became public when the Sydney Morning Herald broke the story in August 2096. “A desperate search has begun amid concerns the tapes will disintegrate to dust before they can be found,” it said.

While the media rushed with oops-style headlines like ‘One giant blunder for mankind’, NASA quietly investigated what really happened. Last week, they revealed the hard truth: the tapes were part of a batch of 200,000 that were degaussed – or magnetically erased — and re-used. It was a standard money-saving measure at NASA in those pre-digital days to reuse the 14-inch tape reels after several years in storage. Agency officials fear that the original Apollo 11 tapes were buried among an estimated 350,000 that were recycled in the 1970s and 1980s and the data was lost for ever.

But the historic visuals are not entirely lost: luckily, broadcasters who used NASA’s expensively obtained footage had archived their transmissions for posterity. For many months, NASA has worked with a leading digital imaging company in Hollywood to restore good copies of the Apollo 11 broadcast found in the archives of CBS News and some recordings called kinescopes found in film vaults at Johnson Space Center.

On 16 July 2009, NASA released the first glimpses of a complete digital make-over of the original landing footage that looked decidedly sharper and clearer than the blurry and grainy images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon.

And we have to admit, the new video is definitely better than the ones we’ve seen for 40 years!

Raw Video: Restored Video of Apollo 11 Moonwalk

Another montage of digitally restored Apollo 11 mission highlights:

The full set of recordings, being cleaned up by Burbank, California-based Lowry Digital, are to be released in September 2009.

Read technical details of how Lowry Digital is restoring NASA’s original footage of the Apollo 11 mission

I had often wondered why the original images from the Moon were so grainy: it wasn’t typical even for that time. And if NASA spent between US$ 22 to 25 billion on landing men on the Moon, surely they’d have harnessed the best available technology to capture and share their moments of triumph, I assumed.

Actually, the video coverage that was broadcast around the world — to an estimated audience of 500 to 750 million people — and has since been endlessly redistributed was not quite what came from the Moon. It was a diluted version. Stanley Lebar, the NASA engineer in charge of developing the lunar camera, now calls a “bastardized” version of the actual footage.

Here is the “as-it-happened” broadcast from CBS News that day, with the legendary Walter Cronkite anchoring to the biggest TV audience the world had known. (Footnote: You’ll see the first electronic “character generators” in use.)

The story is technically complex, but here’s the essence: live images from the Moon couldn’t be fed directly to the American TV networks using the NTSC broadcast standard. Audiences worldwide would be holding their breath that a delayed broadcast, even by a few minutes, would not have been as effective as ‘live from the Moon’. Under such time pressures, no conversions could be attempted. So a regular TV camera was pointed at the huge wall monitor at mission control in Houston.

This is known as kinescope, or telerecording: a recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor. That resulted in the grayish, blotchy images that everyone saw on their home TV sets. In other words, It was a copy of a copy, with significant quality losses in that process!

And what is now lost, permanently, are the tapes containing the original Slow-Scan Television (SSTV) tapes. Digitally remastering the CBS broadcast tapes is now offering us better images than we’ve been used to for 40 years, for sure, but they stem from an already adulterated source.

Scan-converted broadcast image of Armstrong descending the lunar module ladder taken at Goldstone tracking station. This was the image the world saw of the first human on the Moon. But a Polaroid picture of the Slow-Scan television image of Armstrong coming down the ladder reveals far greater detail. Image Courtesy: John Sarkissian/CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory
Scan-converted broadcast image of Armstrong descending the lunar module ladder taken at Goldstone tracking station. This was the image the world saw of the first human on the Moon. But a Polaroid picture of the Slow-Scan television image of Armstrong coming down the ladder reveals far greater detail. Image Courtesy: John Sarkissian/CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory

A new documentary, released in January 2009, offers new insights into one of the most challenging feats in international live broadcasting – how those images from the Moon were delivered to TV audiences around the world. Produced by Spacecraft Films and directed by Mark Gray Live from the Moon: The Story of Apollo Television

It tells how for the first time in history millions of people could share, in real time, the experience of frontier exploration.

The story behind the camera...finally!
The story behind the camera...finally!
“Placing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth was hard enough in 1969,” says Gray. “‘Live From The Moon’ tells the story of how television, still a technological toddler, was developed for space flight, and examines the impact of the iconic passages that were returned.”

Here’s an excerpt from that reviewed the film:

To tell that story, Gray literally circled the Earth, shooting interviews at the deep space communication stations in California and Australia, as well as at space facilities and museums in Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Princeton, Kennedy Space Center, Huntsville, Ala., Washington, DC and Weatherford, Oklahoma.

Along the way, he interviewed astronauts, flight directors, mission controllers, tracking station operators, historians and those who built the television cameras for the space program…. “Live from the Moon” is told with the insight of moonwalker Alan Bean; Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford; flight director Chris Kraft; Neil Mason, who drove the Parkes Telescope; Westinghouse camera team leader Stan Lebar; and the voice of mission control Jack King, among others.

“Every single one of them believed that the TV was one of the most important legacies of Apollo. And many of them admitted candidly that they didn’t give the TV much thought during the actual missions,” recalled Gray.

No Moon, please – we’re Ceylonese: How Sri Lanka lost the Moon…

We came in peace for all makind...
We came in peace for all makind...

When Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon 40 years ago this week, they were more than just Americans taking that historic first step on to another celestial body.

Yes, they planted the US flag there – after all, it was the American tax payers who financed the massive operation. But they left on the Moon other items that signified the universal nature of their mission.

One was a plaque (photo, above) saying “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It bore the signature of the three astronauts –- Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins –- and then US President Richard Nixon. Another was a golden olive branch.

The astronauts also left behind a silicon disc, which is one of the most important and symbolic items taken to the Moon. Etched on to that disc, about the size of a half US dollar coin, are miniaturised messages of goodwill and peace from 73 heads of state or government around the world.

The silicon disc (right) next to a US 50 cents coin for comparison of size
The silicon disc (right) next to a US 50 cents coin for comparison of size
These letters were received by NASA during the final weeks running up to the launch on 16 July 1969, yet this disc helped turn the Apollo 11 mission into an international endeavour.

It was only in June 1969 that the US State Department authorised NASA to solicit messages of goodwill from world leaders to be left on the Moon. This triggered a minor diplomatic frenzy, with invitations going out from Thomas O Paine, the NASA Administrator.

In all, 116 countries were contacted through their embassies in Washington DC, but only 73 responded in time. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, responded. But for some unknown and unexplained reason, then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake declined to send a message to the Moon.

When I first heard about it about 18 months ago, I was both intrigued and curious. Was it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple diplomatic arrogance that led to Ceylon’s negative decision? After all these years, we might never find out.

I have now written this up in an article titled ‘How Sri Lanka Missed the Moon’, which appears this weekend in the mainstream media and online in two different versions.

The Sunday Leader newspaper has printed the compact version in its issue for 19 July 2009. Citizen journalism website Groundviews carries the more detailed version, where an interesting reader discussion is evolving…

The story is based largely on a book that came out in 2007. Titled We Came In Peace For All Mankind: The Untold Story Of The Apollo 11 Silicon Disc, it was authored by Tahir Rahman, a Kansas-based physician and space historian.

Uncovering forgotten history
Uncovering forgotten history
The book documents the full story behind this little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo 11 mission. It also reproduces each of the 73 goodwill messages, as well as those which were received too late for inclusion on the disc.

“I was amazed at how NASA and the State Department rushed to get these messages before launch,” says Rahman. He took two months to locate from the Library of Congress the boxes in which NASA Administrator Paine had preserved the full correspondence.

While researching for this article, I contacted Rahman hoping for some additional insights, but he replied: “I do not have any information about why Sri Lanka did not send an Apollo 11 goodwill message.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, was also intrigued by Ceylon’s decision, which he didn’t know about until Rahman’s book reprinted the official letter. His only remark: “Mysterious are the ways governments think and work.”

Reading the messages, whose English translations are available online, is like entering a time capsule. Only two of the world leaders are still holding office (Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, and King of Thailand); most of them are dead. Some countries have since changed names. Others have been subsumed by neighbours, or broken into two or more independent states. Geopolitical map of the world has been completely redrawn.

The story of the Apollo 11 silicon disc is more a history and politics lesson, and less a science story. But I’m glad that I found a little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo missions to write about on its 40th anniversary.

Watch Tahir Rahman interviewed on Fox News network:

She should have gone to the Moon…but wasn’t ‘monkey enough’?

She couldn't shatter the glass ceiling to space...
She couldn't shatter the glass ceiling to space...
Exactly 40 years ago, on 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off carrying three American astronauts to the Moon. Four days later, history was made when Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., become the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body, while their colleague Michael Collins circled the Earth.

When Armstrong stepped on the Moon, he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind“. Man on the Moon was very much the news highlight of 1969, and at the time, the term ‘mankind’ was understood to include women as well. The more gender-neutral term ‘humankind’ would come into popular use some years later.

Beginning with Apollo 11, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo 13. Without exception, all of them were white and male. While they were all highly qualified, disciplined and trained men who had worked long and hard to earn their places in history, they did not fully represent the diversity of their nation, let along of the planet whose emissaries they were portrayed to be.

Women, celebrated across cultures as holding half the sky, took a long time to travel beyond the sky to outer space.

Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983.

A recent British documentary reveals how America could have sent a woman to the Moon during the Apollo programme. It reveals, belatedly, one of history’s great might-have-beens.

She Should Have gone To The Moon (58 mins, 2008), written and directed by Ulrike Kubatta isn’t quite story that the American space agency NASA would like to be reminded of as it marks Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary.

Jerri Truhill, astronaut in training: Not 'monkey enough' for men who ran NASA?
Jerri Truhill, astronaut in training: Not 'monkey enough' for men who ran NASA?
The film tells the astonishing story of the pilot and pioneer, Jerri Truhill, who was trained in 1961, as part of NASA’s top secret Mercury 13 programme, to become on of the first woman astronauts. The documentary is a lyrical journey propelled by childhood aspirations, shattered dreams and a lifelong battle against female sterotypes and male prejudice.

Truhill tells how the women outperformed men in all the training tests (including water tank isolation) but how ultimately, the authorities, with the approval of President Johnson, stipulated that they would “rather send monkeys into space than a woman”.

In the film, the tough talking and sharp witted Jerri Truhill looks back at her compelling life via a phone call with the film-maker. This conversation becomes the catalyst for the director’s imagining of key events in Truhill’s potent narrative and inspires a journey to meet the heroine in Texas. Along the way the film-maker places herself in Truhill’s story, first wandering across the surreal landscape of White Sands and then suspended in zero gravity inside a water tank.

Included are staged scenes, dreamt-up moments from Truhill’s story, which evoke the popular melodrama of 1950s American cinema. These fictional moments bridge the gaps of time and distance between the filmmaker and her subject. Their stylised and dreamlike quality is counterpointed by shots from both Truhill’s and NASA’s film archive. The various strands produce the film’s heady timeline, as they circle through real and imagined spaces, past and present.

I can’t locate any part of the film that allows embedding on to WordPress blog platform. But you can watch official trailer for She should have gone to the Moon on IMDB

On LEEDVD.TV’s YouTube channel, I found this segment of another documentary named Rocket Girl, but Google does not bring up too much other info about this film.

Watch Rocket Girl, part 1

Read American National Public Radio’s coverage: Women’s Space Dreams Cut Short, Remembered

Read NASA’s own website profiles of women’s accomplishments in space

Seven of the “Mercury 13” gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. In the photo below, from left to right, are: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. They came to watch Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. NASA has come a long way.

Mercury 13 women reunion in 1995 - NASA image
Mercury 13 women reunion in 1995 - NASA image

As I wrote in May 2009, the path-breaking TV series Star Trek, which started airing on television in the US in September 1966, was way ahead of reality. When neither the mainstream television nor the space programme reflected America’s true diversity, Star Trek created a multi-ethnic crew for the Starship Enterprise, roaming the universe in the 23rd century. It included an African-American woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and a super intelligent alien, the half-Vulcan Spock.

Reality took a long time catching up. It was only in August 1983 that Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Another nine years passed before Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go to space, when she joined a Space Shuttle mission in September 1992. In fact, she cited Star Trek character Uhura as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational. Space travel has yet to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek.

Images related to ‘She should have gone to the Moon’ courtesy Ulrike Kubatta. Other images courtesy NASA

Al Gore’s challenge to America: kick the oil habit in a decade

Al Gore making Climate Challenge to America - courtesy New York Times

“There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more – if more should be required – the future of human civilization is at stake.”

With these words, climate crusader Al Gore opened a powerful speech delivered in Washington DC on 17 July 2008, in which he issued what he called ‘A Generational Challenge to Repower America’ to take bold steps towards solving the climate crisis.

At one point he told fellow Americans: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.”

Having outlined the environmental, security and economic implications of America’s addiction to oil, Gore challenged his nation “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years”.

I was immediately reminded of President Kennedy’s pledge to Congress on 25 May 1961 where he said:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth.”

In fact, later on in his speech Gore referred to this saying: “When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.”

Al Gore’s full speech, according to a video recording posted on YouTube, lasted 27 minutes — but the We Campaign has released the highlights of the speech running for 5 minutes:

Read the text of his full speech on the We Campaign website.

Read The New York Times coverage of Al Gore speech

The We Campaign is a project of The Alliance for Climate Protection — a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort founded by Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore. Our ultimate aim is to halt global warming. Specifically we are educating people in the US and around the world that the climate crisis is both urgent and solvable.