Interview With Buzz Aldrin
On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Dr Buzz Aldrin says he does not want to be remembered for “kicking up a bit of Moon dust”.
“No flags and footprints this time, but for humans to stay,” says Buzz Aldrin, arguably the world’s most famous astronaut, one of the first two humans to land on the Moon along with Apollo 11’s Lunar Module co-pilot, Neil Armstrong.
But Aldrin is not talking about the Moon; this time he has set his sights on a further, redder, planet. “I have a plan to establish permanent inhabitation of Mars by 2039,” says the father of three. “But I’m getting impatient. We have been stuck in low-Earth orbit for too long. I believe that we need to break this malaise through a bold decision by the President to reach beyond our grasp. To do amazing things.”
Nearly 50 years on from the historic Moon landing, 87-year-old Aldrin is stepping up his campaign to create the first Earth-born Martians. His non-profit space education foundation, ShareSpace, established in 2014, is committed to driving education in science, technology, engineering, arts and maths by providing inspirational learning tools such as interactive giant Mars floor maps, depicting the topography of Mars, as well as the landing locations of NASA’s Mars robots.
Aldrin sat down with Billionaire to answer a few questions.
Why is it important for you to accelerate human habitation of Mars?
As humans, we all have an insatiable curiosity and an innate need to explore. We explore or we expire. Mars presents humankind with the opportunity to address three existential questions. The first, as my friend Stephen Hawking put it, is the question of whether we have the technology to live on another planet permanently. We will have no choice but to learn how to live off the Martian land on Mars. It is simply too expensive to sustain a Martian settlement from Earth.
Second, Mars may tell us a great deal about the distribution of life in the universe. If we find signs of past life on Mars, even if it is only microbial life that existed thousands, or even millions, of years ago, it will tell us a great deal. If we find something, it is hard to believe that there is not life on other planets among the millions of exoplanets we are discovering every day.
Third, we believe that the evolution of Mars might tell us a great deal about the future of Earth. A billion or so years ago, Mars had oceans and an atmosphere. It may have looked much like Earth. What happened to make it such a barren wasteland?
These are all very fundamental, even existential, questions that we cannot answer by going to the Moon, or any other place we might reasonably get to in the next 50 years or so.
Do you believe this will be possible by year 2040 — just 23 years — and how much would it cost to do so?
Yes, I do, and I also believe that by being physically responsible we can inhabit Mars without breaking the bank. The US currently spends about US$8 billion a year on human spaceflight. If the rest of the international community is willing to contribute a similar amount to this grand endeavour, we can certainly afford this without any budgetary increase. US$160 billion is more than enough to get us to Mars.
But what is more important is staying on Mars. We cannot have only flags and footprints. My approach using spacecraft that cycle between Earth and Mars is an order of magnitude cheaper than using an entirely new series of rockets to send each crew to Mars. As I said, we must learn to live off the land but, once we do this, my plan would be capable of sustaining a human settlement on Mars with money left over for humanity to pursue its next great venture.
Would transport of humans to Mars be using the Aldrin cycler and what is the current status of that project?
Yes, we will transport people to Mars using the Aldrin cycler; the journey could take only three months. Today, I am spending virtually every waking moment of my time perfecting the system and convincing global leaders this plan is the only credible way to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. My son Andy runs the Buzz Aldrin Institute at Florida Tech in Melbourne and that institute is devoted to researching and developing my concepts.
Since you landed Apollo 11 on the Moon and were a pilot on Gemini 12, how quickly do you think space vehicles have improved?
In my opinion, the Space Shuttle never lived up to expectations. It was supposed to fly 40 times a year but the most we ever did was nine flights in one year. I think public apathy and political support waned, and so it has made it harder to make as much progress as we had hoped. When we were done with the final Apollo mission we all thought we’d be on Mars by the 1980s. So we haven’t made nearly as much progress as we hoped. But with SpaceX and Blue Origin now in the mix I think it’s the commercial companies that will make the greatest strides for the future. NASA is good at doing big projects. It should leave the business of developing rockets to commercial companies. As for human spaceflight, I think the biggest developments have come in the area of learning how to live and work in space. We have had crew on the International Space Station constantly for almost two decades. I think the technology that is in front of us that is most important is learning to develop reusable landers that could be refuelled, first at the Moon, but later at Mars.
What was it like as a passenger aboard the space vehicles you travelled on?
The Gemini and Apollo vehicles I travelled on were extremely small and a little bit cramped. We were all very busy during the missions, and most of our time was spent thinking about the next task, and getting it done successfully. We were very aware that literally the whole world was looking at us, and hoping for our success. My proudest moment was when I saluted the American flag on the surface of the Moon. All of our years of training culminating in a successful landing. By the way, landing was the hard part. You can prance around on the Moon if you didn’t land successfully. I don’t think landing gets as much credit as walking around on the Moon.