20 May Buzz Aldrin on Why We Should Go to Mars
A member of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the moon. In the years since, he has become an advocate for space exploration and technology, calling for renewed U.S. investment in the space program. In Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, Aldrin lays out a detailed, multi-stage plan for journeying to the red planet that would culminate in the first permanent human settlement beyond the Earth.
It’s been more than four decades since you landed on the moon. What’s your assessment of the U.S. space program since then?
The United States has had periods of ambition, but it has not financed them appropriately. Interest waned after the first Apollo landing on the moon. There was the conflict in Vietnam that attracted attention and financing and U.S. government support, and then a general disinterest by the American people in American leadership and technology. Our standing in education in the world, in science, technology, engineering and math, began to go up because of Apollo and then back down again. I’m trying to fix a lot of that.
The space shuttle has been the most high-profile program in the years since Apollo. Do you think it was a success?
It killed two crews, it was way over budget, and it hasn’t really accomplished what it set out to do. Of course we pioneered international cooperation and zero gravity experiments and we gained medical knowledge about long-term habitation in space. But the experiments were disappointing for the results of a national laboratory. We had to rely on Russian contributions to build the space station. And now the United States is financing the Russian space program in order to keep our people, in America, at our $100 billion space station, because we had to retire the shuttle.
NASA ended the space shuttle program in 2011. Do you think that was premature?
No, the program needed cancelling, but NASA and the U.S. had seven years between the beginning of 2004 and the end of 2010 to come up with a replacement for the shuttle, which it failed to do.
You’ve worried about the U.S. falling behind. Do you see other government space agencies doing better work? The Russians, for example, or the European Space Agency?
Well, they’re not well-financed either. But they continue to be able to transport crews to the $100 billion International Space Station. And the Chinese have advanced, with Russian assistance, to potentially surpass the United States.
During the Apollo program we were in a so-called “space race” with the Soviet Union. Do you think that it’s important for the U.S. to lead the world in space exploration, or should it be more of a partnership between nations?
Absolutely the United States should lead in space, for the survival of the United States. It’s inspiring for the next generation. If we lose leadership, then we’ll be using Chinese capability to inspire Americans.
You were critical of President Bush and NASA’s proposal to return to the moon, but the moon does play a role in your conception of a mission to Mars. Can you explain?
To send humans back to the moon would not be advancing. It would be more than 50 years after the first moon landing when we got there, and we’d probably be welcomed by the Chinese. But we should return to the moon without astronauts and build, with robots, an international lunar base, so that we know how to build a base on Mars robotically.
What would the moon base look like?
I think it should be an early version of a habitation module for a U.S. interplanetary spacecraft. We would put it there for testing temperature control, the temperature changes with 14 days of sunlight and 14 days of darkness on the moon, radiation protection—that’s absolutely necessary for venturing beyond the earth’s magnetic field.
After we build the moon base, you believe we should use what we learned and send humans to Mars’ moon, Phobos, to build a base on Mars.
That would be my preference. We’ve learned, with the robots Spirit and Opportunity on the surface of Mars, that you can’t control them adequately from the Earth. What we’ve done in five years on Mars could be done in one week—that’s a significant advance—if we had human intelligence in orbit around Mars. It’s much, much easier to send people there for a year and a half and then bring them back, before sending them back later to permanently land on Mars.
So to return to Earth, it’s easier to launch off Phobos than Mars, because Phobos is a smaller body with less gravity?
Yes. We need to build the base on Mars from orbit before sending people to the surface. And they will be permanent settlers and not return to earth, like the Pilgrims on the Mayflower left Europe.
You think we can actually get humans to live out their lives on Mars?
How can people be persuaded to do that? You’d be asking them to sacrifice a lot. It’s a big step.
It wouldn’t be a problem, getting volunteers, fully capable people, to assume that mission for the rest of their lives. They will realize that they will go down in history. The pilgrims were a big step, too. Columbus was a big step. Magellan was a big step.
Why should humans colonize another planet?
There may be diseases, there may be nuclear conflict or there may be an impact by a very large asteroid that endangers the human race. Stephen Hawking says we have about 200 years. And I said to him, I think we could make it to another planet in less than 50 years.