Q+A: Buzz Aldrin, Astronaut and Engineer

Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969. Forty-five years later, his “Unified Space Vision” eyes a permanent settlement on Mars.

You’ve said that the president who commits to permanent life on an extraterrestrial planet will go down as one of the greatest in history. If you were in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama, what would be your pitch to commit to a permanent colony?

Well, due to timing and world conditions, Obama may not be in the best position right now to make that kind of commitment.  It’s my opinion, and given the opportunity, I would mention that the 50th anniversary [of the moon landing] in July of 2019 would be a very appropriate time for a new president facing a reelection in a year and a half to reflect back 50 years on the significant benefits that accrued from the space program and its commitment to lead the world by sending a man to the moon and bringing him back. Not to mention the developments that followed the Apollo program, which include the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz international cooperative mission between two Cold War adversaries.

Tell us a bit about Mars and your “Unified Space Vision.” What do you think is a realistic timeline for a human landing on either the Martian moons or Mars itself?

I believe very strongly that the first human beings to land on Mars should not come back to Earth. They should be the beginning of a buildup of a permanent colony or settlement. If we are not willing to do that, then I don’t think we should just go once and have the expense of doing that and then stop. This should not be a massive design reference mission—one mission and its launch components that then carry out the mission and do whatever follows. I am calling for what should be renamed an evolutionary pioneering exploration sequence. We need an entirely new spacecraft that I call the Exploration Module, or XM. Unlike the Orion capsule, which is designed for short flights around the Earth and to the moon, the XM would contain the radiation shields, artificial gravity, food production and recycling facilities necessary for a spaceflight of up to three years. This exploration sequence could start at the present time or perhaps 2020, and go up until 2040. And in the sequence I have laid out, we would reach Phobos, the inner moon of Mars, in 2032, occupy it for a year and a half, and then return. A second crew would occupy the moon of Mars for a year and half, and then it too would return to Earth; and a third crew would get there around 2037, and it would stay there and not return to Earth, but it would land just before the permanent landing comes direct from Earth, so the next landings would take place in 2039.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently remarked that mining rare earth elements in space might yield the world’s first trillionaire. What are your thoughts about the potential economic upsides of space?

Well, I suspect that there will be many shareholders who have invested in a commercial company. I don’t believe it will be a government employee who makes the trillion dollars, and perhaps rightly so—it will be a commercial resource, and that resource could be ice crystals or water if it’s been separated into hydrogen and oxygen for consumption on the surface. But more important, at I think the near side of the moon’s libration point—a sort of gravitational parking space—we would have also a Mars exploration vehicle permanently located that would grow into a fuel depot started by the government but completed by commercial activities, which would then gather the ice crystals from the very cold, eternally dark craters; separate the water; package it for launch to this location, where the continuous sunlight would then electrolyze the water into hydrogen and oxygen for marketing to spacecraft from nations that need refueling. There’s a profit to be made out of such a simple thing as ice or water.

You were an inspiration to a lot of kids. Who do you see as the space heroes of 2014?

Me. (laughs)

Other than yourself?

There are not too many people who have been in space-heroic activities. In the early days, activities on the shuttle were limited to Low Earth Orbit and the space station, and of course many contributions have been of significance and it’s hard to categorize which ones of these people are more widely known for their broadcasting or picture taking from the shuttle or the station, or their contributions to the science discoveries that haven’t made a lot of headlines. What makes the headlines is failures of the shuttle system, problems with the space station and unique broadcasts from the station crew during their long stay at the station. The Canadian [Chris] Hadfield comes to mind as more popular to the general public.

For most of us, life is pretty routine, but you have walked on the moon, you’ve been a fighter pilot, you’ve shot down MIGs in Korea. When you’ve known such extremes of sensation and experience, how do you keep from being underwhelmed by the rest of daily life?

Well, I occasionally go to the North Pole on a nuclear icebreaker with the Russians. I’ve been down in a French yellow submarine with two Frenchmen and we spent some time looking at the Titanic. I’ve been diving in the ocean since 1957, and because of that experience I was a convenient but strong supporter and the first astronaut to train underwater in order to better prepare for the intricate space walks on Gemini 12 and duties of maintenance while in space. So that was an unexpected contribution. My more visible, and perhaps influential, contribution, by the way, was my doctoral thesis at MIT dealing with the techniques of manned orbital rendezvous, which were adopted, expanded on and perfected by NASA, and utilized still somewhat today with much more computerized sensor inputs so that the crew does not get involved in monitoring and using pencil or pen and charts to calculate backup maneuvers in the event of certain components failing in the rendezvous.

Why is it important that we be an interplanetary species?

Well, what was the motivation of the people from Europe who came on the Mayflower not to return from Plymouth Rock but to stay here and to begin to build up a North American civilization? Many of the reasons are somewhat similar to the basic pioneering urge: doing things that people have not done before. Think about it: hundreds of thousands of years of evolution of humans on this third planet from the sun to a technical point where we could visit briefly a natural satellite of the Earth, and then venture to occupy another planet that is much, much more habitable than the moon of Earth with its long days and long nights and high temperature swings and no atmosphere. It is human nature to reach beyond, to explore, to advance in technology and achievements and social interaction, historical achievements. I certainly believe that an individual with billions and billions of dollars could finance a private venture to Mars, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think you’re going to find that person, I don’t think you’re going to find the necessary equipment. But it should happen by a collection of nations on Earth coming together, with, I feel, the need of strong leadership by one nation.

It’s interesting that you brought that up, because what role do you see for private space companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin? I mean, how far away are we from a Dutch East India Company in space?

Well, [Dutch] East India grew a product, tea, which was sold; maybe they did a lot of other things too. There certainly are resources… . Flights into sub-orbital conditions, I don’t call that space, and I don’t believe the passengers should be called astronauts. To me, they are star flyers—“star” standing for “space transportation, affordable, reusable.” I don’t believe that the national title of cosmonaut, taikonaut or astronaut should be applied to space passengers—they’re not really passengers, they’re participants. I would call their project not Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin but Star Quest—space transportation, affordable, reusable—and it’s a quest for progress. There may be other words, but that would be my nomination.