Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has no shortage of opinions of what the US should be doing in space, and how. In a speech Wednesday at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, he emphasized his belief that NASA should be focused on sending people to Mars—to stay—and shouldn’t be distracted by other options, including NASA’s new plan to redirect an asteroid into cislunar space.
“Mars is our next ultimate destination,” Aldrin said in his speech. “We need global cooperation in order to make this happen,” he added, but said that NASA should take a leadership role, particularly in the development of human space transportation systems. “The US needs to begin the homesteading and settlement of Mars. It’s within reach, technically and budgetarily. Even in a period of fiscal challenges, the US needs to consider this program with long-term planning.”
Aldrin went into considerable technical detail about his concepts of Mars exploration, including the “cycler” spacecraft concept he has refined over the years. He also described his “Unified Space Vision”, a detailed architecture of missions leading up to Mars he has also developed over the last several years.
Aldrin’s Mars architecture includes trips to comets and near Earth asteroids as stepping stones to Mars. However, he indicated he didn’t like NASA’s new asteroid initiative, which calls for redirecting a small near Earth asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. “Bringing an asteroid back to Earth? What does that have to do with exploration?” he asked, rhetorically. “Not very much, in my way of thinking.” He said he interpreted the original asteroid mission goal—a visit to a near Earth asteroid by 2025, as laid out by President Obama in 2010—as “a good stopping point” in an extension outward of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “Now it’s turned into a whole planetary defense exercise at the cost of extending our exploration capabilities.”
Aldrin was also critical of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift launch vehicle, without mentioning it by name. Noting at Inspiration Mars, the non-profit venture established by Dennis Tito that announced plans earlier this year for a human Mars flyby mission in 2018, has shown an interest in using the SLS, Aldrin warned that this mission should not “justify a launch vehicle designed by Marshall Space Flight Center to have, according to law, heritage components,” he said. “To me, that means old stuff. That means things people are working on now, so we don’t have to develop new things. And because of that wondrous career for those people working on heritage components, they’re going to vote for the senator that managed to bring that up.”
While Aldrin advocates human missions to, and settlement of, Mars, he’s not expecting the current administration to make that the goal for NASA. Instead, he’s looking ahead to 2020, around the time of the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo lunar landings; that would also, he noted, be when the president elected in 2016 to succeed President Obama would presumably be running for reelection. He wants that president “to make a commitment, within the next two decades, to begin American-led permanence on Mars,” he said. If that president doesn’t make such a commitment, “it would be a wonderful opportunity for that person trying to unseat the incumbent by saying, ‘I’m going to make that commitment early in my term.’”
The 83-year old Aldrin, who spoke seated at a table on stage and didn’t take questions after his talk, got a standing ovation from conference attendees. They also lined up in the lobby of George Washington University’s Listner Auditorium immediately after Aldrin’s talk to get copies of his latest book, Mission to Mars, signed by him. That left the auditorium relatively empty for the conference session going on at the same time as the book signing. The topic of that panel session: public engagement.