Buzz Aldrin’s vision of future space exploration

By Fred Watson 3 August 2009
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In an exclusive interview with AG, astronaut Buzz Aldrin discusses what’s to come in the space race, and looks back on that giant leap.

THE ASTRONAUT BORN Edwin E. Aldrin Jr but best known as Buzz – his legal name since 1982 – was the first spaceman without test-pilot experience hired by NASA, which wanted his brain for physics and astronautics and made him one of the first men to walk on the Moon. He remains one of only a dozen people ever to have taken lunar steps. This July marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s precision journey to the Moon and that historic walk.

Buzz has lost none of his drive or curiosity in his 79 years and is a sought-after speaker for his views on the future of space exploration. His opinions are wide-ranging, detailed and bold: no less than one would expect from one of three men (Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins were his Apollo 11 crewmates – Mike orbited the Moon but didn’t walk on it) who completed arguably the 20th century’s greatest feat of adventure exploration.

“I think the field of astronomy has just burgeoned tremendously in the last 10 years,” Buzz says. “I don’t think we ever thought that we’d see the kind of returns that we’ve been able to get from the Hubble Space Telescope. And I think we’re going to be just that much more ‘gee whiz’ impressed by the new telescopes coming. And to think that we could send satellites, spacecraft, on the grand tour by using gravity assist instead of fuel; the fact that we can run spacecraft around Saturn and multiple passes of the moons… my goodness, nobody would have expected that.”

No-one knows better than Buzz that rocketing people into space is in a different league from sending automated probes, but he sees a renewed push for manned space exploration building momentum. “Some things that require building rockets and obtaining money and convincing politicians; they can take a little longer. But we also have [renowned physicist] Stephen Hawking saying that we need another commitment to have another giant leap in space. That’s why I’m motivated to look quite a bit beyond the current thinking. Because I want to see Stephen Hawking’s ‘giant leap’.”

Buzz’s vision includes the Moon – the place where Neil Armstrong gave the term “giant leap” its most famous airing – as a stepping stone, but his horizon lies further out in space, and he sees it reached through a combination of experience, innovation, long-term planning and greater international cooperation.

He advocates using the Space Shuttle and possibly Orion spacecraft, now under development in the USA, to continue building the International Space Station (ISS), and says that China, India, South Korea and Brazil should be brought into the ISS agreement (currently the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the 10 nations of the European Space Agency are signatories). “The cost of entry, for the Chinese at least, is free transport of some of the other partners in as many Shenzhou spacecraft as they can build,” Buzz says. He thinks one of the Shuttle’s last services (it’s due to be decommissioned next year) should be to take a test module to the ISS to research life support for long-duration missions. “We need to do that; we need to find out how to protect against cosmic radiation, cosmic rays and solar flares. We need to learn how to protect the human for muscle tone and bone loss. We need artificial gravity. We need to be doing those things and we need to plan missions that go beyond the Moon.”

That’s where it gets interesting. The Moon will almost certainly figure in further investigation and planning for manned deep-space missions, and may even witness human habitation at some stage, but humans need to look further, according to Buzz. “It’s just not a good place with 13–14 days of daylight and darkness and no atmosphere, and no radiation protection. So we send our people somewhere else. We’ll send them to fly by an asteroid in 2018, to rendezvous for 30 days with a near-Earth object in 2020, and to rendezvous with [asteroid] Apophis in its close path to the Earth in 2021. And then in 2025 we can land people on [Mars’ moon] Phobos, do it again in 2027, and again in 2029, then we land people permanently on the surface of Mars.”

Buzz’s “permanently” means precisely that: “One-way trips; they don’t come back. They are the first settlers, just like the Polynesians that headed for Hawaii – they didn’t turn around and then go back. Neither did the Pilgrims on the Mayflower wait around for the return trip. They came to settle. And any of the Earth’s national leaders who chart a course to do that for humans – to emigrate, to be the first immigrants to another place, to set up a station – may save humankind in case the Earth is ever wiped out. That’s what we need to do and I think the timing is right to do it now.”

BUZZ’S EARLY YEARS were all about flight. His dad, an aviator, took Buzz aloft for the first time as a two-year- old, in 1932: “My father flew me from Newark Airport [in New Jersey] down to Miami [Florida] in the same plane that he had flown over the Alps in 1929.”

His childhood was wingtip-to-wingtip with stories about early aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Soon after, as a bright and inquiring boy, he delighted in the rapid development of aircraft during World War II, and not surprisingly focused on wanting to learn to fly as a military pilot. He went into the US Air Force and qualified as a fighter-jet pilot, flew combat missions during the last six months of the Korean War (1950–53), and was later deployed in a fighter squadron in Germany. “I realised in Germany that a few [pilots] had outstanding coordination, outstanding eyes, could see things that other people couldn’t see and maybe were at home, easier, quicker than I was in a new and different airplane: these are the guys that make great test pilots,” Buzz says. Rather than going through test-pilot training, Buzz opted to improve his academic credentials, and went to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), his father’s alma mater.

“While I was there [first Soviet cosmonaut] Yuri Gargarin went up, then [American] Alan Shepard [see “Race to the Moon”, page 64], and I knew what I could do, so I wrote my thesis on manned orbital rendezvous in space,” he says. “What a lucky choice that was, because in 1961 we decided to go to the Moon, and the way to get to the Moon was going to be lunar orbit rendezvous. I applied for the second group of astronauts, in 1962, but NASA couldn’t pick me because I hadn’t had test-pilot training. But mysteriously they changed the rules the next year to put more emphasis on academic experience, so I came in as an egghead from MIT.

“I was given the opportunity to fly in the last Gemini mission [in November 1966], and what we were having trouble with was not rendezvous, but space walking. I happen to be a good scuba diver and I welcomed the opportunity to train under water, and that…enabled us to do space walking very nicely on the last mission. All of that stuff put me in a good position to be on a backup crew for a mission in Apollo.”

Buzz and Neil were assigned as backup crew for Apollo 8, the first manned orbit of the Moon, in December 1968, and the Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 missions further tested the spacecraft and systems needed for a Moon landing. By then the whole world knew that Neil, Buzz and Mike – the Apollo 11 crew – would be given the opportunity to land on the Moon. “What could a young kid growing up when I grew up, what more could he possibly ask for, than to be in the right place, at the right time for all these events?” Buzz says.

The right place was the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility on 21 July 1969 (20 July in the USA), where Buzz and Neil landed their craft Eagle and took humankind’s first steps on another heavenly body. Does he have a single strong memory of that extraordinary day?

“I think it was the unrecorded couple of seconds after we shut the engine down and were stable. And we looked at each other, and my recollection is that I patted Neil on the shoulder; his recollection is we shook hands, I’m not sure which. But that was a moment more significant than any others. It was not beautiful out there; but [there was] magnificence in human beings achieving what we achieved. Not we, but the world. And when we came back people said: ‘We did it, we did it!’ Yes we did. Human beings did it. But what a desolate spot was chosen. What we looked at had no life, no colour, black sky, no stars, not very attractive.”

FOUR DECADES LATER space travel is, if not exactly commonplace, accepted without the awe that was attached to it in the 1960s. And as has happened throughout history, adventure and exploration have broken ground for their mass-market pursuer, tourism. British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic – among others – is developing craft for suborbital spaceflight and accepting reservations for as-yet unscheduled flights. Prospective private ‘astronauts’ need at least US$200,000 to get aboard.

Private enterprise has always played a role in spacecraft construction and Buzz sees Richard’s efforts as a force for good because they will reinvigorate the idea of human space flight. He notes, however, that Virgin Galactic’s hybrid craft are strictly for suborbital flight and won’t be useful for true space applications, which require much greater launch velocities to reach Earth orbit. Richard has adopted the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s standard of 100 km altitude as the boundary of space and his suborbital craft will go only a little further, but accelerating a spacecraft to orbital speed requires more than 60 times the energy needed to lift it to 100 km.

With so much energy needed to boost big payloads into Earth’s orbit and beyond, some of the world’s most innovative thinkers have pondered alternatives to rockets. Science-fiction author and inventor Arthur C. Clarke is among those who’ve advocated the “space elevator” as a means to reach orbit. The fine points of different space elevator proposals vary, but the basic idea is the same: it’s a fixed structure that extends from the surface of the Earth at the Equator, to a point approximately 36,000 km directly above, that remains in synch with the Earth’s orbit – a geostationary orbit (GSO). Clarke was among the first to give GSOs wider coverage when he published his paper “Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” in Wireless World magazine in 1945.

Buzz – who’s co-written two science-fiction novels, The Return and Encounter with Tiber, among other books – has a lively and practical view of the space elevator and its place in contemporary space thinking and planning. “I think we, science fiction [writers] and others [such as UFO enthusiasts], have excited people with fantasies that lead to expectations that just don’t work,” he says. “Let’s say a space elevator goes from the Equator all the way up to [GSO] and it’s got something stationary up there. Whatever mass crawls up there is going to pull that stationary something down unless a mass goes up the other way, okay? That’s a little bit of a problem, but the biggest problem is the following: it goes from the Equator up to GSO and beyond, and it moves at 24 hours a revolution, okay? However, all the other satellites below that are moving faster. And each satellite – pay attention here – each satellite that’s lower crosses the Equator twice, or it’s on the Equator all the time.

“So it’s only a question of time before there’s a collision between the elevator and [one of] those thousands and thousands of satellites already there. You can’t move it out of the way, it’s a fantasy idea. It won’t work! But you know [Clarke] was a pretty smart person to point it out, and I hit the palm of my hand against my forehead and I said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

BUZZ DESCRIBES AUSTRALIA’S role in the Apollo program as “immense”, and lauds its continued exploration efforts through astronomy and the Deep Space Network (DSN), which tracks deep-space probes. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) – better known as Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station – is one of just three DSN complexes in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. “Everything that goes out beyond the Earth, [automated probes] and telescopes depend upon that deep-space tracking network,” Buzz says. “It doesn’t get enough credit.”

Buzz likes to see credit given where it’s due and there’s one idea he’s happy to push. “I think on July 20 of this year the [US] President ought to nominate and confirm, living or dead, the 24 people who reached the Moon, as such a great distinction from the almost 500 who have been in Earth’s orbit, and to make them official lunar ambassadors at large, carrying the title, ‘The Honorable’,” he says. “That makes a statement to all other world nations, that we make a big thing about what we did then, and we encourage you to be able to do the same thing. It was a peaceful program, and we came in peace for all mankind. We knew it was potentially a big thing, and I think it needs to be remembered as a big thing. But it’s not as big a thing as sending humans permanently to the surface of Mars.”

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2009