Certainly, we all have a responsibility to give back, to appreciate the sacrifices our forefathers have made and to be diligent in helping others enjoy those same freedoms and opportunities. Even more important than giving back to society, however, is a determination to “pay it forward,” to help others go beyond where you have gone.
That’s what ignites my rockets to this day. Every day, I wake up and begin working on some way to help motivate the next generation to develop a challenging but realistic goal of exploring space. So I kicked up some dust on the Moon. Big deal. That was great, but I don’t want that to be my only legacy. I don’t want to be remembered as an iconic voice from the past; I want to be remembered for making a huge impact on the future! I won’t be around to see it, but I want to lay the groundwork for the next generation of explorers.
Nowadays, I consider myself a global statesman for space and have been doing my part to try and move our space program forward.
One of my goals yet to be achieved is to see all 24 of the astronauts—living or deceased—who reached the Moon, including the 12 who landed on the surface, designated as Lunar Ambassadors. In the meantime, I continue my efforts as a global space statesman.
In 1985, I started the ShareSpace Foundation to lobby for a lottery to give regular, everyday people a chance to travel into space, so it wouldn’t be something only governments and the rich folks can do. At first, some people thought my suggestions were the stuff of science fiction, but now with companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Blue Origin, space tourism is becoming reality.
But my main focus is Mars! I participated with great honor in America’s initial landing on the Moon, and now I am devoting my life to encouraging and enabling Americans to lead the way in an international effort to land on Mars and establish a permanent presence there. Returning to the Moon with NASA astronauts is not the best use of our resources. Instead, we need to direct our efforts to go beyond the Moon, to establish habitation and laboratories on the surface of Mars.
I have always felt Mars should be the next destination following our landings on the Moon. I’ve been vocal about it for a long time, and the dream of reaching Mars is finally getting closer to becoming a reality. With the Curiosity rover now on the surface of Mars and showing us more sights than ever before, I’m hoping it will pique the curiosity of young people and motivate them to explore beyond Earth and the Moon and on to Mars.
Now, nearly 50 years since I stepped onto the Moon, one of the hardest questions for me to answer is: “What did it feel like to walk on the Moon?” Of course, I’ve tried to answer that question in various ways, but because I am a scientist rather than a poet, I’ve never adequately described the awesomeness of the experience. Perhaps it is impossible to do so.
Recently, a little girl asked me this very question, and I said, “Squishy,” with a twinkle in my eye. She understood.
But I often answer the question by returning to the first words that came into my head after setting foot on the lunar surface and gazing around: “Magnificent. Magnificent desolation.”
Although we had little time for ruminations that day as I looked out at the darkness beyond the horizon and the tiny blue marble of Earth 250,000 miles away, I was struck by the magnificence of it all—not merely the Moon’s appearance, but the fact that human beings were standing on it, that I was stepping on surfaces that had not been disturbed in thousands of years. I was awed by the magnificence of the technology that had made my steps on the Moon possible, and by the imagination and courage of people on Earth to dream of expanding our capabilities. All that and more was wrapped up in my exclamation, “Magnificent.”
Yet it was also desolate—more desolate than any place on Earth. There was no atmosphere, no plant life, no signs of life anywhere. Beyond me, I could see the surface of the Moon curving away into the horizon and the sky of black velvet sheen in every direction. It seemed so cold, colder than anything on Earth, although I knew that when the Sun came up, the lunar surface would get extremely hot. So, yes, it was magnificent, but the starkly barren, monochromatic hues all around me evoked my spontaneous expression, “Magnificent desolation.” After all these years, that is still the best description I’ve come up with in trying to convey my first impressions and the enormity of it all.
These are a few of my favorite life lessons that I learned as a result of walking on the Moon, the preparation that took us there and the guiding principles that have helped keep me going since returning to Earth:
- The sky is not the limit . . . there are footprints on the Moon!
- Keep your mind open to possibilities.
- Show me your friends, and I will show you your future.
- Second comes right after first.
- Write your own epitaph.
- Maintain your spirit of adventure.
- Failure is always an option.
- Practice respect for all people.
- Do what you believe is right even when others choose otherwise.
- Trust your gut…and your instruments.
- Laugh . . . a lot!
- Keep a young mind-set at every age.
- Help others go beyond where you have gone.
I hope these lessons will be as helpful to you as they have been to me.
Take it from a man who has walked on the Moon: Be careful what you dream—it just might come to pass, so be prepared.
Watch Buzz Aldrin speak with TIME senior editor Jeffrey Kluger:
Adapted from No Dream Is Too High copyright © 2016 by Buzz Aldrin. First hardcover edition published April 5, 2016, by National Geographic Books. All rights reserved.