Buzz Aldrin: What That Apollo 11 ‘UFO’ Really Was, And Why He Punched That Moon-Landing Denier

Buzz Aldrin is an American hero. The Apollo 11 astronaut walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong, the first two humans to do so. Now in his mid eighties and still full of that just-get-it-done spirit, he has become a tireless advocate of space exploration, especially a future manned mission to Mars. (He proudly sports his motto, “Get Your Ass to Mars,” on T-shirts at public gatherings around the world.) He has a PhD from MIT and considers himself a scientist.

His most recent book, No Dream Is Too High (National Geographic Books, 2016), is dedicated to “the dreamers, the out-of-the-box thinkers and seat-of-the-pants innovators like me.” It is filled with stories illustrating his lively brand of life’s lessons. Among them:

The sky is not the limit . . . there are footprints on the moon. Keep your mind open to possibilities. Maintain your spirit of adventure. Failure is always an option (“If you are afraid to fail, you probably won’t accomplish much in life”). Do what you believe is right even when others choose otherwise. Keep a young mind-set at every age.

The latter is what has given him so much appeal to younger generations.

The book also includes two small sections of special interest to skeptics. One gives his personal take on the supposed “Apollo 11 UFO” he and his colleagues saw on their way to the moon. The other recounts his much-viewed decking of a moon-landing denier.

He begins the “UFO” section, in a chapter titled “Trust Your Gut … and Your Instruments,” with these apt words: “Things aren’t always what they seem.” About three days and 200,000 miles into their journey to the moon, “I noticed something odd outside our windows.” He says it appeared to be a light following along side them. Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins (the Command Module pilot) saw it as well. They could see all sorts of stars, “but traveling alongside us was this mysterious object. We could see it but we couldn’t identify what it was, so in that sense, I suppose it could technically be described as an ‘unidentified flying object.’”

They never thought it had anything to do with other spacecraft or aliens. On a private channel, Neil asked Houston if they knew where the S-IV-B, the final stage of the rocket they had jettisoned earlier, was. Houston answered that the S-IV-B was about 6,000 miles away. So what they were seeing couldn’t be the discarded rocket.

They decided to go to sleep and not worry about it. Writes Aldrin: “Of course, people who are convinced that aliens and extraterrestrials exist contend that we were being tracked by a UFO. It certainly seemed that way.” He emphasizes “seemed.”

“So,” Aldrin writes, “if three intelligent human beings, all of whom had flown in space previously, agreed that we saw something outside our window, something that appeared to be a UFO, that should be evidence for the existence of UFOs, right?”

“Not necessarily,” he answers. “Remember, things aren’t always what they seem.”

They ruled out the possibility that they were being followed by a spacecraft from another country. (“That was ridiculous. How Russia could launch a rocket to the Moon without our noticing is totally incomprehensible to me.”)

Finally, they decided that what they were seeing was likely one or more of the four panels that peeled away when they extracted the lunar module (LM)—the vehicle that would take Neil and Buzz down to the moon’s surface—from their command and service vehicle.

In moving the LM, the command vehicle in which Mike, Neil, and I were traveling was nose to nose with the LM for a while, and the four panels that had protected the LM fell away in four directions. With the Sun reflecting off one of the panels, still moving along with our spacecraft, it seemed as though a brightly lit object was following us.

Which of the four panels? I don’t know, so technically, there was an “unidentified flying object” in our rearview mirror. (p. 153)

When they got back to Earth and were debriefed, they mentioned the odd encounter, but NASA made little of it. A number of years later, Buzz told the story to a foreign television network assuming it was already known. “When word got out that Apollo 11 astronauts had seen a UFO and not informed the world—especially those who adamantly believe in extraterrestrial presences in space—it caused a major uproar.” Lots of believers contended Aldrin saw an alien and NASA wouldn’t let him talk about it. “It seemed that way,” writes Aldrin. “But now you know what really happened.”

Aldrin concludes the section this way:

As Carl Sagan is fond of noting about improbable possibilities, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Personally, I strongly believe other life-forms might exist in various places throughout the universe, but the tremendous distances involved in trying to explore the immensity of the universe make discovery unlikely in the near future.

* * *

A few pages later in the same chapter (pp. 161–163), Aldrin brings up the time he confronted the moon-landing denier. He does so in the context of his advice that when the pressure is on, “you can’t allow your emotions to overwhelm you; the best way to handle the situation is to maintain your composure. Not that I’ve always done so perfectly—not by a long shot.”

“One incident in which my composure was somewhat ruffled hit national news, made the rounds of the talk shows, and has been seen on YouTube more than five million times.”

Writes Aldrin:

For years after I returned to Earth, my fellow astronauts and I were repeatedly accosted by conspiracy theory nuts claiming that the United States never really landed on the Moon, that the whole thing was done in a Hollywood-style studio, and that the landing was a hoax foisted on the public by the government. What lunacy! But there is no accounting for some people’s logic, or lack of it.

Aldrin says he won’t waste time debating the obvious. In the book, he recounts some of the photographic evidence still in place on the moon for the landing. Their footprints and the experiments they set up are still there. Photos from lunar reconnaissance orbiter satellites show them. “For any intelligent person, such recent photos should forever put an end to the conspiracy kooks claiming that we never landed on the Moon.” =

He says most of the conspiracy nuts are harmless—“irritating but benign.” But one was not. Aldrin had agreed to do an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel for what he thought was a children’s television program. “But I quickly figured out the interview was a farce and that I had been tricked into showing up.” He tried to exit, but the man who accosted him repeatedly demanded that Aldrin swear on a Bible, which he thrust into Aldrin’s face, that he had walked on the Moon.

“I was offended for both the Bible and me,” Aldrin says. “I was irritated by his incessant, rude, and irrelevant demands, but when he called me a coward and a liar and a thief . . . well, I could no longer contain my composure. I punched the guy right in the jaw.”

The harasser’s film crew videotaped the whole thing and thought they had an assault case against him. “The video became a blessing in disguise because the police refused to entertain charges, concluding that the accoster had repeatedly provoked me into decking him.”

The video was seen around the world. Talk show hosts had a field day. Many skeptics, though usually preferring intellectual arguments, secretly relished the idea that someone like Aldrin had finally confronted a moon-landing denier in a way the person could understand.

“I’m glad to say that most people who have seen the video of my punch have sided with me, agreeing that my response was justified,” Aldrin concludes. “It may not have been one of my most noble moments, but just as one picture is worth a thousand words. . . .” 

Buzz Aldrin is an American hero. The Apollo 11 astronaut walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong, the first two humans to do so. Now in his mid eighties and still full of that just-get-it-done spirit, he has become a tireless advocate of space exploration, especially a future manned mission to Mars. (He proudly sports …

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