On 26 April 2017, Omega held the biggest event it has ever hosted in Europe. Turning the vast Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern gallery into a lunar landing station with a legion of spacemen lining the entrance, the dinner celebrated 60 years of the preeminent space watch: the Speedmaster. As well as the troop of would-be astronauts and a bunch of A-listers from the worlds of modelling, music and movies, the UK’s capital warmly welcomed Omega’s dynamic CEO Raynald Aeschlimann, Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney and the man of the evening, Dr Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
Clooney led the tributes to Aldrin, echoing the mood of the hall, when he said: “I was eight years old in the summer of 1969 and was watching live on television as the first two human beings set foot on the Moon – two of only 12 people in history to do it. It was important for the world that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong succeeded. What they did meant so much to all of us and I can’t thank them enough for their courage and leadership. So, it’s an exceptional honour for me to meet Buzz and to be here with him today.”
A day earlier, Revolution was equally honoured to spend an hour with Aldrin to photograph him for our UK cover and talk outer space, wristwatches and colonising Mars. One of the most interviewed men on the planet, it was evident from the start that, at 87 (or “87-and-a-half” as he firmly corrected me), Aldrin has heard it all before and, in a way that only the fiercely intelligent can, he has a habit of playing with his interviewers, turning any questions on their head in order to tell you what he wants you to hear – usually something to do with Mars. His ever-present manager – or “Mission Control Director” – Christina Korp patiently drags conversations back on track, laughing as she declares: “When I took this job on another astronaut told me, ‘you’ve grabbed on to a rocket’. That was a good analogy.”
Still under huge demand to talk about the incredible feat of 48 years ago, Aldrin is keen to point out that he had a full career before, and has been working solidly since, preparing for adventure and exploration into the future. “That’s my life,” he says. “I have served my country ever since I swore an oath at West Point Military Academy and I continue to serve now.”
Believing he was destined for the stars, Aldrin explains: “My mother was born the year the Wright brothers first flew, her name was Marion Moon, I got to witness World War II, my father was in the Pacific and Europe, I was in combat in the Korean War and I earned my Doctorate in Astronautics at MIT working on Manned Orbital Rendezvous – docking and reuniting techniques for spacecraft in orbit – which was used in the Gemini and Apollo programmes. Now I develop orbits that go around the Moon and back to Earth, as well as cycling orbits to Mars. I won’t be here to see it but I’m preparing people for the first trips to Mars. I’ve never been busier in my life.”
It is Rocket Science
Encouraged by his friend and military colleague Ed White, Aldrin originally applied to NASA in 1962. White was selected but Aldrin wasn’t until the third selection of astronauts in 1963, becoming the first astronaut with a Doctorate, which led to his nickname: Dr Rendezvous. His first space flight aboard Gemini XII in 1966 enabled Aldrin to experience extravehicular activity, when he was tasked with taking pictures of stars at night. “We were travelling around and the sun was shining, so we were pretty much just sightseeing,” he says, laughing. “I decided to take a picture of myself and this is how I made the first selfie in space.”
Just after this experience, which was the last flight of the old Gemini programme, White, who had been working on the first flight of the new Apollo programme, died along with his two fellow astronauts in a fire on Apollo 1 during pre-flight testing. “Everything changed at this point and it is probably the reason that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon,” says Aldrin, remembering his old friend. “Originally Apollo 12 was supposed to be the first to land in October but the schedule had been slipping and NASA wanted to catch up.”
Whatever the circumstances, on 16 July 1969, Aldrin found himself with Armstrong and Michael Collins aboard Apollo 11 as it was launched into space by a Saturn V rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre. “I was the co-pilot, Neil was controlling the spacecraft and Mike was keeping everything ready so he could bring us back from the Moon’s surface – rather a critical job,” says Aldrin. “The rocket took off with us in the command module (Columbia) and the lunar module (Eagle) was behind us, so once we got into orbit and on the way to the Moon, we had to turn around and get into Eagle and separate from the rocket.
“Pictures taken of us during this time have been seen billions of times and my Speedmaster is there on full display. It’s funny, but things seem to become more covetable as time goes by – the jacket that I wore inside the spacecraft has been on loan to the Smithsonian for a long time and I have just got it back. We are thinking of making a replica because all the millennials are re-Instagramming the picture saying they want one. I guess it’s the same with the Speedmaster.”
Watch this Space
There’s no doubt that Aldrin is something of a style leader. Eschewing more traditional suits for a flying jacket, stars-and-stripes braces and space socks, each hand is fully loaded with gold rings including his West Point Academy ring and one that was a gift from Muhammad Ali. Along with numerous metal and beaded bracelets, his left wrist bears a curiosity that any watch enthusiast would envy: a bracelet double mounted with two Omega watch-heads – a yellow-gold De Ville Chronoscope and a quartz X-33.
When I ask him about the two watches I expect him to tell me they are set to different time zones, but no. “One is a show watch,” he says pointing at the Chronoscope. “Expensive, gold, it looks good. But this one, this is the reliable one, more efficient, more accurate and more attuned to space – it’s my backup.” Later he comes up with a more imaginative explanation, crediting gravity with his decision. “If you have one heavy watch on, it slips round to the side of your wrist. This way, gravity keeps everything in place – one on the top, one on the bottom. It’s balanced. And I like to be a little different.”
On his right wrist he wears the new 60th anniversary Speedmaster. “This one I’m going to make some modifications to,” he says. “I’m going to make it a Mars watch, so here on Earth I’ll be able to tell what time it is on Mars.” No easy task for a watchmaker, bearing in mind that a day on Mars is 24 hours, 37 minutes, and 22 seconds long.
During our photoshoot, Aldrin asks us if we have a Hasselblad, referring to the camera he and Armstrong took into space. We didn’t, but our photographer had brought along a Polaroid from 1969, which led to a conversation about Aldrin’s son Andy, an avid underwater and wildlife photographer who has become resigned to the fact that he will never take a picture as famous as the one his father took of a solitary footprint on the Moon’s surface. “It was very distinct so I had to take a picture,” he says. “It’s very lonesome looking so I was compelled to put my foot down so you could see the boot and the footprint together. That one is not quite as famous though – I guess the lone one really says something about the human print on the Moon.”
Aldrin is naturally proud of the image – especially as most pictures on the Moon were taken by Armstrong with Aldrin as the subject. Referring to the famous image where the moonscape is reflected in the visor of a space helmet, he explains that despite usually being reported as Armstrong, it is actually him. “You can see the black sky and the sunlight – it’s almost 50 shades of grey. There was no light, no air, just magnificent desolation. It’s a spontaneous picture, I was moving, Neil said: ‘Hey stop.’ I stopped, looked at him and he took the picture but I was still turning and you can see some movement. People ask me to tell them about this shot and I have three words to describe it: “Location, location, location.”
In the shot, the Speedmaster is clearly visible, reaffirming that this is indeed Aldrin. “Neil didn’t wear his on the Moon,” he says. “I sent the watch to the Smithsonian in Washington for display and it got lost on the way. Every now and again someone emails to say they’ve got it, but there are serial numbers and none have ever matched up. Everything changed at NASA after mine disappeared. Now astronauts hand the watches in and after testing they are returned to them. So, everyone won from my loss – everyone apart from me!”
As for the use of the Speedmaster in space, we all know the story of Apollo 13, where on-board computers failed and the corrections needed for re-entry were timed using an Omega wristwatch. But for Aldrin and the Apollo 11 crew there were no such emergencies, the Speedies remaining as very important back-ups. “It was a little difficult to activate the stopwatch to time things, but we didn’t need to do that really,” says Aldrin.
“To be honest, time in space is a very different thing. The time most meaningful was not GMT or Houston time it was mission elapsed time – the time from lift off. The flight plan had to stay the same, so if it was in GMT and there was a delay, then everything would be off. When you are walking around on another planet, knowing what time it is in Houston, Texas is not really all that important to you. But we were in communication with Earth all the time and we wore the watches set to the time of the shifts of the people back in mission control – those guys are living on a schedule and their shifts change every eight hours.”
Life on Mars
After leaving NASA, Aldrin returned to the Air Force – the first astronaut ever to do that – but found himself with an assignment that he did not want. He had chosen not to be retrained as a test pilot but was put in as Commander of the test pilot school. “That didn’t sit too well with me and I was uncertain of what I was going to do,” he says. “I’d been to the Moon, I’d travelled the world, but what would I do next? I felt discouraged and disappointed and I had to overcome these things to be able to take what I do and my experiences and make them relevant for the future and allow me to continue to serve my country.”
Today Aldrin can lay good claim to being the most travelled human of all time. Not only has he been to the Moon and into space on several other occasions, he has also been to the Titanic, two miles below sea-level. He has visited the North Pole aboard a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker, and most recently the South Pole. And, if all of that wasn’t enough, earlier this year he became the oldest person ever to fly with the US Thunderbirds. Referring to his South Pole adventure, he acknowledges the difficulty, saying breathlessness trekking at 9,000 feet led to an enforced evacuation, adding: “But we guys don’t do things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard. That’s what President Kennedy said all those years ago.”
Fiercely proud of what he and his colleagues achieved with the Apollo programme and lunar missions, Aldrin believes that the future lies on Mars. “There is little point in any more planetary landings – we did that in 1969 – so, instead of rendezvous to bring people back to earth, we need to have reusable rendezvous so that we can re-use the landing module instead of leaving it behind. My work over the past few decades has been to develop a Mars cycling orbit with perpetually cycling reusable spacecraft allowing continuous resupply of the planet.”
Disappointingly, Aldrin feels that despite huge interest in travelling to Mars, no one has the right motivation or is taking the time to make considered decisions. Whether political or corporate expeditions, he believes that everyone needs to slow down, suggesting that the first logical trip to the planet is still decades away. “I try to be realistic about how we would get technology to go to other planets. I think there is a desire to want to rush and I think we need to slow down,” he says. “Despite his ambitions, President Trump is not going to get someone to Mars in his first term – and not in his second term. We have met with Vice President Pence and he is very interested in doing things in space. But we’ve got to give them some guidance, let’s put it that way. I’m convinced that going to Mars and then leaving it empty is not the right way. I think the only purpose of going is to start to build up a settlement there and we should wait until we can do this very confidently, very completely, not real quick to just get there and come back.
“Everyone has their own driving force, expectations and objectives. For me it is an obligation to serve my country that drives me. But not everyone is as purely motivated as I am. A president is going to take an idea because it is good for him and that’s OK – it’s fine, it means he is valuing the decisions he makes because he’s on record as having made them. I’ve learned to preface my approach with two words: fiscal discipline. We need to stop things that are being done just because the vested interest doesn’t want to see change. I want to point out to the people making decisions what their legacy could be if they adopt my approach because I have carefully considered the people who may be carrying these things out and the practicalities involved.”
Military pilot, astronaut, adventurer, academic and space strategist, the man who spontaneously and famously described the Moon’s surface as “magnificent desolation”, is more active today than most high-achievers a fraction of his age, but I can’t help but wonder if, now in his ninth decade, he has any plans to slow down? Staring deep into my eyes, Aldrin smiles and, half laughing, ends the interview with: “Sure, I could have retired, but idle minds get into trouble.”
Portrait Photography: Ben Harries
Creative Direction: Jo Grzeszczuk
Grooming: Sarah Exley
Additional images: courtesy of Omega and NASA.