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A national treasure turns 90

Buzz Aldrin speaks at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington in October 2019. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Today, January 20, 2020, is Buzz Aldrin’s 90th birthday. It is a milestone birthday for someone who accomplished one of the biggest milestones in human history when he and Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. I won’t recap his many accomplishments because so many others have done it better, and in more detail, than I could do. What I want to do is say thank you to Buzz Aldrin for what an inspiration he was for me as a little kid growing up fascinated by spaceflight.

When I was a young boy, I had three famous people I looked up to as inspirational heroes. I was already a space geek, so naturally I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. The two that inspired me the most were the two who were first to land on the Moon. They had, as they said on Star Trek, boldly gone where no man had gone before. My third hero was Bart Starr—I did grow up in Wisconsin in the 1960s and 1970s, after all.

When the Apollo 11 lunar module set down on the Moon more than 50 years ago, I knew my dream of becoming an astronaut was over because I had started wearing glasses and I knew that you had to have at least 20/20 vision. For most kids inspired by the Apollo program, the chance of becoming an astronaut wasn’t too great. For one reason or another, like my diminished vision, the doors started closing. That’s why being an astronaut has been such an exclusive club. (I also quickly figured out for other reasons that I wasn’t going to be an NFL quarterback.)

What the Apollo program did for me was to help push me towards a career in engineering. The guys with “The Right Stuff” pushed a lot of kids into STEM careers. A lucky few get to be astronauts. Astronaut Leland Melvin was lucky enough to get a shot at the NFL and then go on to fly on two shuttle missions, STS-122 and STS-129.

In recent years, Aldrin has, as much or more than any other astronaut I can think of, promoted human spaceflight. His “Get Your Ass to Mars” T-shirts are testament to that, as has his participation in conferences and the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group.

For those of us lucky enough to have met and talked with Buzz Aldrin and other astronauts, you quickly realize from their stories and personalities that these are not your average human beings. They couldn’t be and accomplish all they have. And yet neither do they have a cookie-cutter sameness. The ones I have met have been noticeably different from one other. Fortunately, there is no exact formula to describe every astronaut.

Spaceflight and the technology developed to enable it has profoundly changed our world. It has also changed humanity’s perception of the world and its limits and possibilities. Astronauts could by no means have accomplished what they have without hundreds of thousands of people working behind the scenes, and the nation financing their efforts. The do often get to be the public face of the program. Buzz Aldrin has and continues to be a great ambassador for the effort.

I have heard people say that when you get to meet your heroes you are often disappointed by the kind of person they are. I have been lucky enough to, on multiple occasions, meet and talk with two of my childhood heroes, Buzz Aldrin and Bart Starr. Neither disappointed me in the slightest.

On this 90th anniversary of the birth of Buzz Aldrin, I want to say happy birthday to him and thank him for inspiring me and many others to be curious about the universe and the possibilities for our future. What I continue to find inspiring is that at an age when most people are retired or no longer here, Buzz continues to look forward at what could be and pushes to help make it happen.

Happy Birthday, Buzz.

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