The moon is not enough for Buzz Aldrin, who insists we need to be taking giant leaps much farther afield, writes Alex Matchett.
Almost half a century has passed since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the moon. Since Nasa’s Apollo missions the political premiums that initially inspired them have waned, but for Aldrin the sense of mission is more acute than ever.
‘We are explorers. We are destined to go beyond our normal boundaries,’ he says. ‘Why do we climb the highest mountain? Why did we learn to fly? Why did we go to the moon six times? I believe we will eventually have interstellar travel. We’ve been writing about it for centuries — it only lacks the capability and technology. We are curious creatures.’
Curiosity, and competition, wasn’t lacking during the space race his Apollo 11 mission won so emphatically. ‘We had a leader with the vision, the courage and the conviction that we could get to the moon within a decade,’ he points out. ‘Actually, I learned a year ago at MIT that John F Kennedy wanted us to go to Mars. But his engineers told him that going to Mars was a bit too hard and that going to the moon was a more realistic goal. Can you imagine? We can’t even get to the moon within the next decade at the current state we’re in.’
However, Aldrin does believe that if we can regain that conviction, we can do great things again. ‘The president who makes the commitment to a permanent presence on Mars will go down in history as the most important leader in human history. I think that would be a much more important achievement than our moon landings. I believe we can do it and I hope the next president will make this commitment on the 50th anniversary of our Apollo 11 moon landing, in July 2019. That is the perfect time to make this type of commitment.
‘To me it’s just as important today as it has ever been, or even more important. But public apathy and the current government thinking is keeping us from progressing. Politicians are more worried about getting re-elected and keeping jobs in their districts. They’re not thinking in the long term.’
China is, however, most definitely. ‘They have a twenty-year plan or longer for their space programme, and if we don’t start taking space more seriously we will fall far behind. We’re already getting behind. We don’t even have the capability to get our own astronauts into space — we have to rent rides from the Russians at $77 million per astronaut to get them to our space station. China is the only other country capable of getting humans into space right now. I don’t want there to be a space race again, though. I think we need to look at international cooperation in space.’
Although Aldrin feels strongly that the USA should lead an international effort, nowhere will the need for cooperation be stronger than in the launch of a manned Mars mission: ‘No one nation can do it alone. It’s humanity’s mission to continue the human race as a two-planet species. This will involve cooperation with China and other nations.’
Such cooperation would benefit a multipolar world, not just politically but also scientifically, says Aldrin who responds to the questions about the necessity of a space programme and a Mars mission by pointing to the improvements such projects have already brought to life on Earth. ‘The scientific advancements and innovations that come from space-based research create products and technology that we use in our daily lives. For example, cellphones, TV and GPS, as well as medical advances. Many of these wouldn’t have been possible, or as successful, without investments in the space programme. Professor Stephen Hawking recently said, and I quote, “We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years, but if we want to continue, our future is in space.”
‘I believe that the role of government is to lead the way, but for future space missions it will have tobinvolve commercial companies. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are commercial companies already doing cargo missions to the ISS. They are developing capabilities to carry humans into space and I believe eventually they will be major players in crewed missions outward into space.
I really like Sierra Nevada because they have a wings-and-wheels capability with their Dream Chaser vehicle, as opposed to landing in the ocean like SpaceX does, much like we did with Apollo.’
The involvement of commercial companies in space travel has best been seen in space tourism and the possibility of a shared public and private mandate not just to explore the solar system, but to make it accessible to all. ‘I have been a space tourism advocate since 1985,’ says Aldrin. ‘I started my ShareSpace Foundation with the idea of sharing space - meaning, giving an opportunity for the average person to have a chance to go to space. I feel space is for everyone, not just governments or the wealthy who can afford to pay for suborbital flights or trips to the ISS, so I was trying to start a lottery [to allow anyone to travel into space].
‘It was a process that was more difficult than I realised, since the laws vary from state to state and in different countries. But three years ago I was asked to be the Axe Apollo Space Ambassador for their competition to give away 22 flights to people from all over the world. I was happy to participate in that and now I’ve revamped my ShareSpace Foundation to be focused on space education for kids. But as for space tourism, I don’t think it’s a gimmick. It’s reality and will happen. Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Blue Origin — these companies and others will make it happen. It’s only a matter of time.’
Those companies may find themselves grateful for Aldrin’s ShareSpace Foundation if they want to harness the expertise of the next generation. The venture has set itself the goal of inspiring children to realise their passion for space by providing interactive experiences. One such tool is the giant Mars floor maps it takes to disadvantaged schools, the aim being to fuel their creative thinking in terms of building their own rockets, landers, habitats, rovers and greenhouse complexes on the surface of the maps.
It also allows them to learn about space and what Mars rovers, such as the Curiosity Rover, are doing. ‘Eventually we want to create digital tools like a Mars app to teach them about Mars’ atmosphere, the best places to land and how to live on Mars,’ says Aldrin, who has even written a children’s book on the subject.
‘Teaching kids of today about Mars is important because they are the generation that will be carrying out Mars missions in the 2030s and 2040s.’ That generation might well look back almost 80 years to the likes of Aldrin for inspiration, but what inspired him? ‘I was inspired by my father, who was an aviation pioneer, and by Jimmy Doolittle [the Second World War pilot], who became a sort of mentor to me, especially after my father passed away. But more than anything I’ve been inspired by service to my country, both as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and in the Gemini and Apollo programmes.’
It hasn’t all been a smooth ride, though. ‘After returning from the moon I wrote a biography called Return to Earth, because what was difficult for me was not going to the moon, but figuring out what to do with my life after I’d achieved what most people would consider the pinnacle of my career. My marriage and family life struggled, and I was suffering from depression and alcoholism. But I got some help and figured out what I needed to do to keep myself moving forward. I quit drinking and today I have 37 years of sobriety. I focused on my passion — space — and began putting my energy and efforts into the future and turned my life back around.’
Does that life finally have time for the distractions of leisure? Rarely, it seems (‘I don’t like down time’), but when he can it’s probably unsurprising that Aldrin again leaves the atmosphere. ‘My favourite thing to do on this planet is to scuba dive, and I try to do it a few times a year or more if my schedule allows.
'Since I was already a scuba diver when I became an astronaut, I became the first to train underwater to simulate the weightlessness of space for my Gemini 12 mission. The astronauts who had already done spacewalks were having trouble getting overheated and trying to force things, but I knew that it would be like in the water, where it’s more like floating.’
As well as Nasa’s training tanks, he’s also dived the world’s oceans. ‘I particularly like the Cayman Islands and the Maldives. I’ve dived a few times at Gili Lankanfushi in the Maldives and think it has the most schools of fish I’ve seen anywhere. I plan to go back to Gili again and it’s a favourite destination to bring my family. We’re lucky and get to stay in their jewel in the crown, their huge Private Reserve Villa. It’s so incredibly huge, I even get peace and quiet from my family, as and when that’s needed too!’
What does wealth mean to a man who has looked back on the world from space, though? ‘Financial wealth can provide a comfortable lifestyle. But wealth can mean more in terms of the life you want to live and the wealth in terms of family and friends. Since I took an oath to serve my country at West Point at the age of seventeen I have lived by duty, honour, country. I still live my life by those principles today.
'Has it given me financial wealth? Not really. I wasn’t paid anything extra to go to the moon, only my standard military pay. But I have my family, my friends and my team, and they help me to live the life that I do today: working on my passion for space and doing my favourite thing on this planet — scuba diving. So I guess you could say I’m a wealthy guy in terms of living the life I want and keeping myself active.’
Speaking of keeping active, is it true he once knocked out a moon landing conspiracy theorist? ‘Yes. It was more of a one punch. I had to settle it legally but it was worth it.’