Sons of Apollo

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin during the lunar-landing mission on July 20, 1969. Despite his ultra-high qualifications, he didn’t even get an assignment aboard any Gemini flight – which meant that, as a space rookie, he certainly wouldn’t have flown an early Apollo mission, let alone been on that first team to walk the Moon. What changed? (NASA | Neil A. Armstrong)

Looking through my files, I just came upon a ton of little-known information about the Apollo program. It was for a book that a major publisher gave me a nice advance to write, in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.

I finished it, the editor loved it, then he promptly suffered a horrible commuter train accident that left him disabled. The new editor decided they didn’t need to publish an Apollo book, paid me my second half advance, and my agent and I watched my effort go nowhere after the manuscript was picked up by a tiny Connecticut house. It probably sold 400 copies, I don’t know.


It sounds like I’m whining. I hate to whine. Why it has come up is that the research I did – about odd astronaut adventures – left a lingering weird feeling about NASA and the space program. In particular, I recall the evening Buzz Aldrin phoned after he’d heard about my project. We chatted for nearly an hour – and I was once again amazed at how different things were “on the inside,” as opposed to the official NASA releases given to the public.

Well, I’m not going to spill the beans about all the dirt I learned; but here’s a potpourri, a sample of stuff about the astronauts. It seems topical, now that the world has completed Apollo anniversary celebrations.

Eight of the 12 men who walked on the Moon are now dead. One died of a heart attack, one of leukemia and one in a motorcycle accident when his Harley failed to negotiate a turn on a California road.

One of the astronauts had a religious conversion on the Moon and promptly became a born-again preacher; he suffered a serious injury when a dislodged boulder hit him while he was climbing Mt. Ararat looking for signs of Noah’s ark. Another also became deeply religious, but it didn’t strike him until a couple of years later. One left NASA to find himself in deep depression and alcoholism, and checked himself into a mental hospital. Several parlayed their names and can-do personalities into considerable wealth in the business world. One quit NASA to devote himself to being a professional artist.

One embarked on a full-time pursuit of New-Age type stuff like ESP, and founded an institute dedicated to exploring the hidden side of the mind, even supporting notorious spoon-bender Uri Geller. One became a semi-recluse and hid from the media. One remained in NASA to participate actively in further space programs.

For all this eventual divergence in their lives, the men had remarkable similarities. The initial pool of 29 astronauts – those of the first three groups chosen, who supplied the overwhelming majority of those names later plastered in newspaper headlines during the three incremental manned programs that put people on the Moon – were analyzed by NASA-Langley director Edgar Cortright, who gathered some interesting statistics about this select group. Bottom line: They indeed shared striking commonalities.

Nearly half the men came from just the four states of Texas, Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey.

The astronauts tended to be more formally religious than the average US citizen, with 23 Protestants and six Catholics; many were very active in their churches. None of the men was anything but Christian and none described himself as atheist or agnostic at the time.

Only a few spent much time with cerebral pastimes such as chess or reading classical literature. Most liked sports cars.

Nineteen had brown hair, one black, two red and seven were blond. Six were seriously balding. By a ratio of 2 ½-to-one, the men had light-colored eyes. The number of blue or green eyes compared to brown was 21 versus eight. There were no blacks, Hispanics or Asians in the group, and no women. 

Seven of the 29 were left-handed, which is double the number that would be expected by chance.

As for the “first-born son has a higher chance for success” notion, the Apollo astronauts would seem to support such a thesis strongly, since 27 of the 29 were eldest sons.

Not so well known is that, in the mid-’60s, the astronaut program pretty much fell under the influence of the Navy, meaning that the people like Deke Slayton who handed out assignments gave preference to members of their own club, namely ex-carrier pilots. Buzz Aldrin is still privately very bitter about this. He told me that, having a doctorate from MIT, “They distrusted eggheads. They were keeping it in the Navy. All you have to do is look and count.” Despite his ultra-high qualifications, he didn’t even get an assignment aboard any Gemini flight – which meant that, as a space rookie, he certainly wouldn’t have flown an early Apollo mission, let alone been on that first team to walk the Moon. What changed?

There were a sudden pair of last-minute deaths when astronauts crashed a jet they were piloting; this moved Aldrin up in rotation to fill the gap. Then, it turns out, they offered that first Moon flight not to Aldrin and Armstrong, but to Frank Borman and his crew. But Borman turned it down, reportedly because his wife was terrified of the danger involved. It took all these twists for Aldrin to be on Apollo 11.

Ah, the hand of Destiny. “Sometimes the die turns and it comes up seven or 11,” Aldrin sighed on the phone.

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, click here. Check out Bob’s podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.

There is one comment

  1. David Budd

    Bob, I really like your columns. As a fan, I’d like to help you out on an item in this one: Buzz Aldrin did in fact fly a Gemini mission – Gemini XII (the last Gemini mission).

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