The following is from Johan Harstad's novel Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? Mattias idolizes Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon, whose quiet hard work made Apollo 11 happen. Matthias comes to realize that he can't always blend into the background. Having been published in 25 countries, this is the first of Johan Harstad's works to appear in English. The winner of the Brage Award for Norwegian literature, Harstad is also a playwright and graphic designer.
Not everybody wants to be head of a corporation. Not everybody wants to be among the top sports personalities of their country, to sit on various committees, not everybody wants the best lawyers on their team, not everybody wants to wake up in the morning to jubilation or catastrophe in the headlines.
Some people like being the secretary who’s left outside when the doors close on the meeting room, some people want to drive the garbage truck, even during Easter, some people want to perform the autopsy on the fifteen-year-old who committed suicide early one January morning, and who’s found a week later in the lake, some people don’t want to be on TV, or the radio, or in the newspapers. Some people want to watch movies, not perform in them.
Some people want to be in the audience.
Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
So here I was. Here. Here in the garden, and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.
It might seem strange then, that Jørn and I were the ones to find each other, to hang out with each other through secondary school and college. We found each other by chance, we were suddenly standing next to each other on the playground, one break when nothing was happening. For some time that had been my spot, stood there almost every break, in my own thoughts and content that way. And on such a day, Jørn came over, asking me about something or other, I’ve forgotten what. I realized later that he only came over because Roar, his mate who I eventually got to know more or less too, was ill that day. Jørn was probably bored, and I probably looked friendly enough as I stood there. Anyway, we got talking, and I figured he said a lot of good things. Talked about the moon that day, about the universe and all the junk that was orbiting the earth, thousands of satellites, all carrying out totally specific tasks; we just stood talking, not so much about ourselves, but about other stuff. And that was how things went, we’d talk on our breaks, we didn’t hang out much at other times, at least not until we started college. Jørn’s agenda was different from mine; forward and upward. He wanted as much of the world as he could get. And I didn’t blame him. Just never understood why. What he wanted with it. So we never quite agreed. Just as we never agreed over Buzz Aldrin. I’d been interested in astronauts since I was a kid, I’d read tons about them, read everything I could find, read myself through space, moon expeditions from the sixties and seventies. I knew all there was to know about the Apollo program, and I can still reel off every detail of every stage of a launch, the re-entry into earth’s orbit, the angles and coordinates, how you come into orbit around the moon and back, why you lose radio contact with Earth every time you disappear around the back of the cheese in the sky. I can tell you everything about Aldrin, the second man on the moon, what his wife Joan Archer thought as she watched her husband on TV walking around up there on the surface. Buzz Aldrin’s story had to be read between the lines about Neil Armstrong, and other illustrious men, his was the great story of the parentheses. But Aldrin’s father himself had been friends with the great pioneers of aviation history, Orville Wright, the first man to fly, and Charles Lindbergh who flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927, New York to Paris in under a day and a half. Aldrin, for his part, attended West Point, became a major in the Air Force, flew sixty-six sorties over Korea and shot down two MiG planes, before deciding to fly even higher. In 1963 he joined NASA as an astronaut and when the twelfth and final capsule of the Gemini program went up, he was in it, blasted out of the atmosphere and into the black nothingness, and he dared to get out of the capsule up there, floated for five and a half hours in space and proved that a human being could function successfully in a vacuum.
After that he was taken onto the Apollo program.
Buzz Aldrin waited, as the first ten rockets were sent up.
Buzz Aldrin practiced.
Buzz Aldrin prepared.
Buzz Aldrin went through all the details again.
Buzz Aldrin was appointed as the pilot on the Lunar Module. The LM that was to be launched from the Command Module which Michael Collins was to control and orbit the moon in, while Aldrin and Mission Commander Neil Armstrong would descend to the moon’s surface in the LM, come out from its hatch, plant a flag, and call home.
And three astronauts waited in suspense as the Apollo 10 descended to 15,000 meters above the moon, almost landing, before it became clear that the eleventh launch would be the one to put a man on the moon. Articles were written. Interviews given. Further preparations made. The day awaited.
July 16, 1969. Takings for ice cream that year were greater than the funds allocated to NASA.
Where were you that day, exactly ninety-seven years after the birth of Roald Amundsen, fifty-one years after the last Tsar was executed by the Bolsheviks? Where were you at 1432 hours Norwegian time when the Saturn V rocket ignited and lifted Apollo 11 with Aldrin on board, where were you at 1433 hours when the rocket shot up, accelerating to seven miles per second, and Aldrin had a pulse of only eighty-eight?
They were even carrying Soviet luggage with them.
The medals of the deceased cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov. Armstrong took a tape of the theremin music his wife loved. Aldrin had pictures of his children, gold pins in the shape of olive branches he planned to give away when he got back.
Where were you on July 20, 1969, at 21:17:42 hours Norwegian time, when man landed on the moon? Five hundred million people sat in front of their television sets. Even more sat in front of their radios.
I was between my mother’s legs.
Where were you when the second person ventured out of the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility at 0415 hours?
Had you switched off the TV? Gone to bed?
Then you missed Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. His boots sank three millimeters into the powdery surface, I lay on a table, and knew nothing. Of the billions of people that have ever lived, Buzz Aldrin was the second man to set foot on the moon, July 21, 1969, while two hundred thirty-eight thousand miles away his family watched daddy on TV, in his spacesuit, watched as he tried to put words to what he saw.
Magnificent. Magnificent desolation. Said Aldrin. Perhaps the world’s finest description of a landscape.
He started to walk across the grainy surface.
Explained how it felt to move.
Photographed the landscape, photographed Armstrong.
Collected rock samples.
The Antarctic of outer space.
And a flag was planted. President Nixon phoned from the Oval Office and said that the heavens had become part of man’s world, and that it served as inspiration for us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and harmony to our planet, and that all the people on the Earth were one, for just one moment. Then he hung up, and intensified his bombing of North Vietnam again. Michael Collins vanished and reappeared from behind the moon at even intervals, Aldrin’s wife modestly requested, and was permitted to send up a few fireworks at home, Armstrong and Aldrin were told that Thor Heyerdahl had had to abandon his attempt to cross the Atlantic in a papyrus ship, and Aldrin had said “OK, adios, amigo,” and climbed back into the Lunar Module after Armstrong. They took off their spacesuits and the moon dust smelled of wet ash and gunpowder. They covered the windows and lay down to sleep for a few hours, before starting the engines, anxious they might not work, they’d only have one go, one single chance, and if something went wrong they’d be stranded forever; but the rocket’s engine started perfectly and they lifted off the surface and ascended, coupled themselves to Collins mid-orbit, crawled over into the command module, disconnected the lunar module and watched it disappear from them for ever and ever, and spirits were high, they might have whistled a tune, but you can’t whistle in that atmosphere, so I imagine it being quiet, even though I know it wasn’t, because there was still so much to do, so much that still needed to go according to plan, and down on earth they had wives who waited, children who gazed up, waiting for fathers from heaven, and finally they came, landing with a belly flop in the Pacific Ocean, on July 24, 1969, picked up by frogmen, and Aldrin was the last to be winched up into the helicopter, helping the other two first, sitting alone for some minutes in the half burned out spacecraft, completely alone, in the middle of the Pacific, before he was picked up too and taken to the aircraft carrier where the President and weeks of quarantine awaited, before the celebrations could be detonated upon the world, and they could travel around the globe, on instructions from NASA, the astronauts and their wives, hailed by everybody, receiving keys to cities, and even coming to Norway, lunching with King Olav, I’ve got a picture of it, everything looks very agreeable, but then, if you look carefully, if you put a magnifying glass against the grainy newspaper photograph, aren’t there traces of worry in Aldrin’s eyes? The seeds of anxiety?
Jørn saw things differently than me. If you’d been one of the crew on Apollo 11, who would you have liked to be? I asked him one evening; in fact I’d often asked him that exact same question, and then he’d arch his eyebrows and look at me as if it was a ridiculous question, and answer Neil Armstrong.
“But Aldrin was the commander of the Lunar Module,” I objected, “he was captain of the ship.”
“But Armstrong was first on the moon, wasn’t he?”
“Yes . . .”
“Armstrong’s the one we remember, isn’t he? One small step and everything.”
“But Aldrin was a more experienced pilot in just about every way.”
“And so what? He wasn’t the first. It was Armstrong who got to be Columbus, wasn’t it, he was the one that pushed on, refused to stop, determined to land on the moon, come what may.”
“But it never would have happened without Aldrin. He even designed some of the equipment on board.”
“Yes, but still. Anyway, how come you’re so certain they even went to the moon? Why were all the recordings so bad? To be totally honest, I figure the whole thing was recorded in some studio in California. They were probably all safely on the Warner Bros. payroll, the whole bunch of them. Which would also explain why Aldrin had problems later on. Because he knew he’d conned a whole world.”
“You’re totally outrageous!”
“Are you so sure?”
“Jeez, of course. It’s obvious they went to the moon, why on earth shouldn’t they have been there?”
“Maybe they just pretended, in order to trick the Russians, or to get a bigger defense budget, how should I know?”
“Come off it!”
“Imagine if the money involved was the only really astronomical thing in all this. There’s tons to be earned on space exploration, right?” And so we went on, an endless conversation in orbit.
We never agreed.
Should I perhaps have done something else?
Didn’t I have ambitions?
Of course I did.
I dreamed of the same things as you. I wanted to go places too, to have a job I burned for, I wanted to see Prague, spend a year in Guatemala, help the farmers with their crops, soothe my own bad conscience, save the rainforest, wash beaches clean of oil, I wanted this party elected into Parliament instead of that, too. I went and voted. I wanted to work for the good of all. I wanted to be useful too.
But I didn’t want to stand in the way. In the way of people who wanted to be in the front row, visible to all, not that there’s anything wrong in it, all credit to those who dare, the people who make a noticeable difference, rescuing airline companies from bankruptcy, laying off thousands and then receiving hate phone calls in the night, taking on the cases that nobody else will touch.
They’re cogs too. No less important, just more visible. I just didn’t have a need to be seen, to have you tell me when I was being clever. I knew when I was.
–Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
From Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad. Used with permission of Seven Stories Press. Translation copyright © 2019 by Deborah Dawkin.