First the Moon, Now Mars

  • Jun 17, 2015
  • SJ Magazine
  • By: Kate Morgan

For Buzz Aldrin, the sky is no limit

Buzz Aldrin gives off the impression that for him, the adventure is just beginning. At 85, he’s certainly had his fair share. The New Jersey native became a household name in the summer of 1969, when he stepped out of the Apollo 11 landing module and onto the moon.

The moon landing made Aldrin a legend, but it was not his first impressive feat, and it wouldn’t be his last – not by a long shot.

Aldrin spent his entire childhood and adolescence in the Garden State, graduating from Montclair High School in 1947. He turned down a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), instead enrolling in the United States Military Academy at West Point.

He graduated third in his class, with a degree in mechanical engineering and was almost immediately commissioned into the Air Force. He flew 66 combat missions in F-86 Sabre jets during the Korean War and later served as an aerial gunnery instructor and flight commander at U.S. air bases around the world.

His time in the cockpit, though, is not what qualified him for a spot at NASA. In fact, he was initially rejected, deemed ineligible for the first two rounds of astronaut selection due to his lack of test pilot experience. What ultimately made NASA select him in late 1963, he says, was not his skill in flight or his military record, but his academic prowess. He’d just earned a doctor of science degree in astronautics from MIT.

“They needed an engineer, and that’s what I was,” he says. “My thesis was on techniques for orbital rendezvous, something they hadn’t accomplished yet. They had the truly great test pilots, and what they needed was the academic.”

The rest is history. Aldrin first went into space on Gemini 12, setting a record for extra-vehicular activity with a two-and-a-half hour spacewalk. Three years later, he and Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the lunar surface.

Today, though, Aldrin is done talking about the moon.

“To quote our current President, ‘Been there, done that.’ Or, better yet, to quote Tina Fey, ‘I walked on your face!’” Aldrin says, shaking his fist at the sky, in reference to his appearance on Fey’s sitcom “30 Rock.” Aldrin’s focus is a bit further away than Earth’s moon. Now, he says, it’s time to go to Mars.

“A mission to Mars is not a new idea, by any stretch,” Aldrin says. “In fact, four or five months ago I was at MIT for the anniversary of their aeronautics department, and some folks there shared some information I didn’t know. In 1961, President Kennedy said to his advisors that he wanted to get Americans to Mars. They said, ‘Mr. President, Mars is beyond our ability, but we think we can get to the moon in 15 years.’ Of course, we did it a bit faster than that. But now Mars is not beyond our ability.”

Aldrin himself has made sure of it. Ever the scientist, he took it upon himself to design a roadmap for the next two decades of space exploration, culminating with a permanent human presence on Mars by 2040. He also designed the Aldrin Cycler, a spacecraft trajectory that he has called a “subway in the sky,” made to transport people and materials between Earth and Mars.

The physics behind Aldrin’s plan are rather complex, but he’s become practiced at simplifying the science for a general audience.

Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the moon
Buzz Aldrin was the second man
to walk on the moon
“I’ve learned that if you have something complicated to explain to large groups of people, it’s best to do it like you’re a 5-year-old explaining things to another 5-year-old,” Aldrin says. “So think of the cycler like a train that takes five months to get from one stop to another. You’ve got an Earth-bound train and a Mars-bound train, and they use gravity to travel along this trajectory back and forth. The science exists, and the technology is there, now we just have to do it.”

Aldrin is outspoken about the necessity of colonizing the red planet. In fact, he’s often seen in a T-shirt that reads “Get Your Ass to Mars.” What’s necessary to make it a reality, he says, is some pressure. What he doesn’t know is where that pressure will come from this time around.

“With the moon, we were competing with the Russians,” Aldrin says. “We perceived our technology was behind, because we were beaten by Sputnik. Of course, there was a political element too – the Bay of Pigs was a disappointment to the president, so was the Cuban Missile Crisis – but I think it was really the demonstration that our technology was behind the Soviets’ that created that sense of urgency. We were inspired and motivated to really do something of note. That’s what got us to the moon.”

But Aldrin acknowledges that getting men to Mars won’t be a race. Instead, he says, it must be a joint effort between nations.

“We’ve got to build on what we’ve done, conserve our resources and bring other nations together,” he says. “It’s totally different now. In 1975 [Russia and the United States] had missiles pointed at each other, mutually assured destruction, and we suggested and carried out a joint mission with the Russians. Look at the legacy that’s been built on that mission – Skylab, the International Space Station. That tells me we could certainly do very well today with China. I’m proposing we work together, toward peaceful purposes.”

For some, Aldrin’s plan for Mars is a bitter pill to swallow. He’s firm in his belief that once humans arrive on Mars they should stay there for good.

“Why should we bring them back?” he asks. “What are we going to do with them on Earth? Turn them around and send them back to Mars again? Have them speak at conferences and ceremonies about what space looks like? That’s not what we need now. We need colonists. The people we send to Mars will be people chosen because they’ll be useful on Mars – not because they’ll be inspiring speakers when they get back.”

No one could mistake Aldrin for sentimental. He’s stubborn and blunt, and the hardened military veteran he is makes an appearance when things aren’t going his way. But you see a softer side of Aldrin when he shares a joke with his partner Judy Rice or talks about their recently completed flight around the world. (Rice is a pilot and the founder of Think Global Flight, an organization that promotes STEM education across the globe.)

Listen to Buzz Aldrin talk about getting humans to Mars.

During the 2015 Humans to Mars Summit at George Washington University, where Aldrin served as a keynote speaker, that softer side appeared when a teenage Boy Scout and his parents visited him backstage. Aldrin, a Boy Scout himself, was eager to give the young man a word of advice.

“You pursue the thing you’re passionate about, even if you get teased or they think you’re a geek,” Aldrin told his young fan. “That’s how you do things that matter. That’s how you leave a legacy that makes a difference.”

When it comes to his own legacy, Aldrin knows the first line of his biography will always be about the moon. His hope, though, is that the work he’s done in the decades since and the work he continues to do today will play a major part in the future of space exploration.

In the end, he says, he wants to be remembered simply.

“I do not think I’ll be here to see men land on Mars,” he says. “But I hope I can still be a part of it. And when they talk about me, I want them to remember I was a patriot – a futurist who served his country.”

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