Those of us who are old enough can remember exactly what we were doing on July 20, 1969. Like millions of others around the world, we had stopped work or school and were huddled around a black and white television. There we saw history being made as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of Apollo 11 and became the first two people to walk on the moon.
Aldrin was educated at the Military Academy at West Point, New York and later at MIT where he completed a doctorate in Astronautics. Early in his career he flew jets in the Korean war. Later, Aldrin joined NASA as an astronaut. In 1966, he and James Lovell manned the 4 day Gemini 12 flight into space. On this flight, he set a record for the length of time spent outside the spacecraft (5 hours). In 1969, he was selected as the Lunar Module Pilot for the first manned mission to land on the moon. The mission was successful and he and his fellow astronauts became instant heroes.
Upon their return, Aldrin and his colleagues embarked on a stressful, year-long public tour around the world and throughout the United States. He was not used to such a public lifestyle. Not only that, but he had achieved his ultimate goal. What was there left for him to do? Aldrin slipped into a depression.
When the psychologist he was seeing suggested that he might need medication and recommended that he consult with a psychiatrist, Aldrin "only sank deeper into despair" (, p. 277). Fearful that his service career would be ruined if it were known he had been depressed, Aldrin initially chose to pay his own psychiatrist's bills rather than use his government insurance. In the end, he became so ill that he "no longer cared whether or not my sickness went on my record. I desperately wanted help." By this stage, he was "not only incapable of making a decision, I could not even complete a coherent sentence." (p. 292). He was admitted to hospital, where he was given antidepressants, psychotherapy and relaxation therapy.
Describing this period of depression, Aldrin writes:
For most of the first several weeks after my depression began I could not be consoled. There were days I could not get out of bed Some mornings I responded to the doctor's questions, other mornings, I ignored his questions and carried on my litany of self-doubt and self-hate. At times I felt hopelessly snarled in the tangle of my mind.
After his discharge from hospital, Aldrin retired from the airforce. The transition proved difficult and he again became depressed. The experience of depression was particularly difficult for a man who "felt that I was not entitled to have such emotions. My goal was command of every situation in which I might find myself, and such an aim was unattainable" (, p. 333). He began taking antidepressants again and gradually recovered.
In the circumstances, it was courageous of Aldrin to write honestly of his depressive illness in his book, Return to Earth. Explaining why he decided to 'stand up' and share his experiences publicly, he wrote:
Psychiatric science has made some great strides and one of them is that a depression noticed and diagnosed in its early stages, can be successfully treated. It is my devout wish to bring emotional depression into the open and so treat it as one does a physical infirmity. I want my children to know so that if they too become ill they will see the symptoms and seek help...The point is that [depression] must be treated, and the sooner the better.
Aldrin concluded his book with the following telling statement:
I participated in what will probably be remembered as the greatest technological achievement in the history of this country. I traveled to the moon, but the most significant voyage of my life began when I returned from where no man had been before.
Those words were written in 1973. Aldrin is now President of his own company. Now he says, "When you reach some kind of setback or discouragement, a bottoming-out of hope or expectations, you make a change. You grow, and you're stimulated by that growth to creativity."