These were Buzz Aldrin’s first recorded words after stepping onto the moon on July 21, 1969. As the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission, Aldrin — along with commander Neil Armstrong and command module pilot Michael Collins — was one of the first three human beings to land on the moon, and the second to set foot on its surface.
Aldrin and Armstrong firmly planted the American flag more than 238,000 miles away from our planet. Aldrin then became the first American serviceman to salute his country’s flag on an extraterrestrial world, a moment captured in one of the most iconic photos from the mission.
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This July, we not only celebrate the 243rd anniversary of our nation’s founding, but just as momentously, we celebrate the moment that American courage and ingenuity reached beyond the ends of the Earth.
From defending us against our enemies to bravely expanding our knowledge of the universe, Buzz Aldrin has stood as an example of the best of America’s great patriotic tradition.
Edwin Aldrin’s journey to the furthest frontier of human exploration began in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, where he was born in 1930. His father was a World War I veteran, part of the first generation of U.S. Army flyers. “Buzz” — who got his nickname when his sister, just a year older, called him “buzzer” instead of “brother” — was destined for the air.
He studied mechanical engineering at West Point and graduated in 1951, just in time to take to the skies over Korea as a newly-commissioned Air Force F-86 Sabre jet pilot. He flew 66 combat missions and shot down two MiG-15 aircraft.
When the war was over he went back to school, earning a doctorate in astronautics from MIT. The natural next stop was NASA, which he joined in 1963 as part of Astronaut Group 3 and from which he retired — with the rank of full colonel in the Air Force — in 1972. In between, in 1969, he made history.
One the millions of Americans tuned in at that moment was my father, then a 12-year-old boy in Garden City, Michigan. He remembers it like it was yesterday. The temperature in the suburbs of Detroit that day was well into the 90s, and while other kids in the neighborhood headed for the local pool, dad stayed glued to the clunky television set in the living room, determined not to miss a minute of the coverage. He spent his life fascinated with space, and even wanted to become an astronaut himself, but was told he was too tall and his eyes weren’t good enough.
So he transferred his fascination to me and my sister— or at least he tried. He showed us every space movie that came out, from “Apollo 13” to the “Star Wars” trilogy. For “fun,” the three of us spent an entire week painting and assembling the pieces of an intricate model of the Apollo 11 lunar module. It came complete with a little plastic American flag, which I admit I was honored to place on the model.
Maybe my sister and I didn’t turn out to be the future astronauts or astrophysicists that Dad tried to mold us into. He got over that. But though we may not have followed in Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps, we knew he was every inch an American hero — and not just because he made it to the moon.
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Aldrin’s war in Korea had been our family’s war, too. Aldrin sped through the air in his F-86 Sabre blasting Communists out of the sky, and closer to the ground, our grandfather, Army Lt. Col. Harold K. VoVilla, was flying MEDEVAC helicopters to rescue wounded soldiers under communist fire. It is that courage and devotion to duty that helped forge this nation in 1776, and which continues to sustain it to this day.
From defending us against our enemies to bravely expanding our knowledge of the universe, Buzz Aldrin has stood as an example of the best of America’s great patriotic tradition. His whole life has been spent in the service of his country. He carried our flag to another world. His courage and that of his Apollo 11 comrades on their mission 50 years ago this month continues to inspire the nation. This July — and every day — let us honor that patriotism.