Buzz Aldrin was the second man to step onto the lunar surface, 19 minutes behind the late Neil Armstrong. That was July 20, 1969, nearly 44 years ago.
Two years later, the Apollo 11 astronaut retired from NASA but still was thinking about space.
In 1996, he wrote a science fiction novel “Encounter with Tiber” and in 2010 competed on the TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”
Aldrin’s latest focus is Mars. I recently caught up with the 83-year-old MIT Ph.D. at The Explorers Club in New York to discuss “Mission to Mars” (National Geographic Books, May 2013), his blueprint for humans to reach the red planet by 2035.
Clash: Let’s start with Apollo 11. Your historic landing with Neil Armstrong was a bit dramatic.
Aldrin: Neil saw we were coming in over a crater, not exactly the spot to land. We had four choices: veer left, veer right, land short or fly over. The last is best, but has the disadvantage of using more fuel. When we got down to 100 feet, I began to get concerned.
A light came on and [Mission Control] said “60 seconds” meaning that’s how much fuel we had left. Now I didn’t want to disturb my partner because he was concentrating, but I did exercise body language to the effect of “Hey Neil, get it on the ground” [laughs]. By 30 seconds, I was pretty confident as we were only 10 feet up. I began to pick up the shadow of the spacecraft. As soon as the lander probe touched, I said the first words from the moon: “contact light, engine stop.”
Clash: Your quoted words are more poetic: “magnificent desolation.”
Aldrin: Neil mentioned something about beautiful. I looked around and didn’t think it was beautiful, but I couldn’t argue with my commander. I did feel I had to say something significant. I was thinking of all the centuries humans had been on Earth and how we were now demonstrating our most magnificent technical achievement. And yet there was the other side: desolation. You cannot find a place on Earth more lifeless -- rolling shades of gray until it gets to a very crystal-clear horizon curving away against velvety blackness.
Clash: Any emotions at the time?
Aldrin: Fighter pilots have ice in their veins. They don’t have emotions. They think, anticipate. They know that fear and other concerns cloud your mind from what’s going on and what you should be involved in.
Clash: On to Mars. Your plan calls for one-way missions to the red planet.
Aldrin: The pilgrims on the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. To my knowledge, they didn’t wait around for a return trip to Europe. You settle some place with a purpose. If you don’t want to do that, stay home. You avoid an awful lot of risks by not venturing outward.
We have an opportunity for American leadership to go down in history making a commitment that will be remembered for thousands of years. Why would we not take it?
My plan emphasizes a moon of Mars, sending three-person crews there first. The missions won’t be to look around and see what this little moon is like for a year and a half, but to assemble successive habitats and major elements of an International Mars Base. Once established, we would take people to the surface of Mars from that.
Clash: The Apollo astronauts are divided on whether the U.S. should go back to the moon first, or directly to Mars.
Aldrin: If we go back to the moon, we’re guaranteed second, maybe third place because while we are spending all that money, Russia has its eye on Mars. Landing people on the moon will be terribly consuming of resources we don’t have. It sounds great - - “Let’s go back. This time we’re going to stay.” I don’t know why you would want to stay on the moon.
Clash: Your Mars vision involves the world -- China, Russia, Japan -- but with the U.S. leading.
Aldrin: It’s imperative we stay at the forefront of space activities. Look what’s happened to our education system, which was at its peak during the Apollo years. It’s descended down. We need an inspiration like Mars to get it back up again. Not just STEM, but STEAM - science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
Clash: Some physicists are working on plasma rockets that could get to Mars within 40 days versus eight months using chemical rockets. Thoughts?
Aldrin: That requires a nuclear reactor, and people are leery about nuclear reactors coming back into the atmosphere. Second, if you’re going to spend the rest of your life on Mars, why do you want to get there in 40 days with such a high-thrust, complicated system?
Clash: Your Apollo 11 crew-mate passed last year. Miss him?
Aldrin: I think we all miss such an outstanding test pilot, someone who was so good in emergency situations. On Gemini 8, Neil had to stop a thruster that was stuck and come down early, then the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle lost control and he had to eject.
He was a guy who understood all the things that were going on in a quiet, unassuming but highly professional way.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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