Virtual pet-sitter is virtually essential

Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing in the late Sixties epitomised technology’s excitement and triumph. Hugh Pearman laments his disenchantment with yesterday’s superheroes.

Buzz Aldrin rang the other day, and left me a message. Could I call him back please, at Claridges? Preferably before Wednesday, since he was off back home after that.

I listened to these words a few times. They were clear, the accent was, of course, American. Anybody called Buzz must be American, after all. Perhaps, I pondered, there are thousands of Buzz Aldrins in the States, like Nobby Clarks or David Mellors over here. There was no particular reason to suppose that this was the Buzz Aldrin. But hold on, I am getting ahead of myself. The readership of this magazine is quite likely composed of people who have not the faintest idea who Buzz Aldrin might be. They are, I shouldn’t wonder, young Turk designers born in 1973 or later, who have not needed to touch a pencil since nursery school. You needed to be alive and sentient in 1969 – which I was, just – in order to get a thrill out of that name.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The Apollo 11 mission. The first manned lunar landing. This much I could remember, along with all the technical details supplied by the BBC’s Raymond Baxter (craggy ex-Spitfire pilot) and James Burke (gushingly ambitious presenter, who imploded some time in the early Eighties).

Armstrong was the first to step down the ladder but – hang on – which one was it who stayed up aloft in the Lunar Orbiter while the other two descended in the Lunar Excursion Module or LEM? Was it Aldrin or was it Collins? If the former, then the voice on my machine, always assuming it was the Buzz Aldrin, was merely an astronaut, not one who had walked on the moon. So I checked it in the encyclopaedia. Relief. Aldrin was a moonwalker. It was Collins who had drawn the short straw.

Even so, I hesitated before lifting the receiver. First, I didn’t want to discover that it was some other tedious Buzz Aldrin trying to sell real estate, which 90 per cent of Americans seem to do. Second, the voice on my BT Response 500, although lacking in peeps and atmospherics, was satisfyingly metallic and remote, as if from space. To talk to the real man – if such it was – in a suite in Claridges could only be a disappointment.

But at least I wouldn’t have to meet him in person, which would be a relief. I’d just seen, on some daft quiz show, the gone-to-seed actor who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek. I imagined Aldrin being as puffy and cheesy as that. What if he couldn’t even pull his helmet on over his jowls? Yecch.

These men were, after all, the last real heroes. Their technology was the last shout of popular scientific progress for its own sake. The computing power inside Apollo 11 couldn’t even boot up a Psion Organiser today, but it seemed dead cool to me at the time. This was pre-commercial, pre-ironic space travel. Nobody laughed at Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins for doing something useless and dangerous and expensive and environmentally damaging. We even took James Burke seriously, because he had yet to enter his post-modern presentational phase and become, as he did, a prototype Jonathan Meades. No, this was Design with a capital D, Technology with a capital T. Nothing, surely, anywhere, could be more important than this.

Back home that night, I dropped casually into the conversation that I had talked to Buzz Aldrin earlier. Zero response. I tried again, with increasing vehemence. Buzz Aldrin. Buzz Aldrin! Family members turned reluctantly from the video replays of the Tour de France. What, they said, you mean “To infinity – and beyond!”. That, I replied, was Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase. Buzz Lightyear was a computer-generated animation of a fictitious toy which believed it was a real spaceman. Voiced by Tom Hanks. Or could that have been the other one? You know, Woody, the cowboy toy? All right, Tom Hanks was in the film of Apollo 13. Anyhow. Buzz Aldrin was the real thing. He was Apollo 11. He walked on the moon. Really. I actually spoke to him. He’s here in London.

I should have kept it to myself. A mistake, perhaps, to have rung back at all. Best to stick with the techno-myth, or at worst such wry contemporary commentaries as Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers. “Goodbye spooney Juney Moon,” or whatever it was the Diana Rigg character sang, driven crazy by the mere fact of the moon landings.

I made the call. I’m pretty sure it was the real Buzz Aldrin. He was trying to sell real estate. Timeshares. In space. I nearly cried.

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