It is 36 years since Buzz Aldrin went to the Moon but the first man in space with an engineering PhD continues to work tirelessly for manned space travel.
On 20 July 1969, Edward Eugene Aldrin Junior — otherwise known as ‘Buzz’ — set foot on the Moon.
Neil Armstrong may have been one step ahead on exiting the flight module, but since the crew’s return to Earth it is Aldrin who has become the father of inter-planetary flight through his tireless promotion of space exploration.
Most of NASA’s astronauts from the golden era of the 1960s and early 1970s have now slipped into quiet retirement. But Aldrin, subject of the most iconic image of the mission has made a point of remaining highly visible.
Since the 1970s he has made a career of bombarding the space agency with visionary designs such as the Mars Cycler, a series of spacecraft perpetually travelling between Earth and Mars and powered by the gravitational force of the planets, the Moon and the Sun.
The technology, first publicly announced in 1990, well before George Bush’s current enthusiasm for travel beyond the Moon, would act as a space taxi system to ferry astronauts to the red planet.
Indeed, before the US Mars exploration plans were announced, Aldrin was planning the development of a Space Vision Institute that would have pushed for the same.
At 75, he is still hard at work, and though the Cycler has currently slipped below the headlines of the technology press, he has ensured that the design is still part of NASA’s brief.
‘Even before President Bush announced the missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond I was doing a lot of work with Purdue University and its graduate students looking at a number of improvements that could be made to the Cycler design,’ he explained.
‘Various groups are now doing analysis for NASA. In a few years when they are looking at what will be the most attractive for Mars it will be the right time to emphasis the Cycler design again.’
However, he agrees that much work is needed before a Mars mission is feasible. ‘One area needing work is the life-support system for a long-duration flight as well as the provision of food,’ he said.
‘There is also the issue of how to make fuel on Mars for a return journey, which will make more sense than taking it with us.’
Rather than a new global space race of the sort that inspired the Apollo missions, Aldrin would like to see more international involvement in the missions to Mars to speed up the process.
‘This is a good opportunity for the UK to rethink its involvement in human space flight,’ he mused. ‘A number of countries such as Italy have been working to develop habitat cylinders for food production. The UK has expertise in rocket engine development. BAE has made huge contributions in the past and, though it is difficult to be away from human space flight and then decide how to come back into this, there is a lot of talent out there.’
By now Aldrin should by rights be taking it easy. But it seems that the pressures of boundless technological creativity and frustration at NASA’s lack of progress will not let him rest. So does he feel weary of being at times a lone spokesman for manned space flight?
‘Well, I’d like more people to be as enthusiastic as I am,’ he admitted, immediately demonstrating this by outlining yet another mission. ‘What I’d really want is to bring all the people who went to the Moon back together,’ he said. ‘Of the 12 of us, nine are still alive. We should stand up as a symbol of what it means to go to there.’
A wish to share his experience of walking on the Moon — which he admits in his autobiography was so overwhelming that it contributed to debilitating depression on his return to Earth — means he has also dedicated a great deal of time to writing books, five of which have so far been published.
The most recent, Reaching for the Moon, was launched this year and is dedicated to the next generation of potential astronauts: children. It describes the events in his life leading up to his selection for the space programme.
‘The book is circular in that it starts with me collecting rocks as a child then ends with me doing the same, but on the Moon,’ he said.
This desire to educate forms the basis of his main passion, the promotion of mass space tourism through his organisation, the ShareSpace Foundation.
For most of us under the age of 60 who were brought up on images of Aldrin, Armstrong and their colleagues striding across the Moon there is a sense of disappointment that, over 30 years on, we are still holidaying on Menorca rather than Moon Base Alpha.
Aldrin wants to tap into this sentiment, creating a relatively cheap opportunity for almost anyone to travel beyond Earth. He anticipates that ideally the first tourist flights will take place within three to five years, perhaps using spacecraft following the X-Prize model.
‘A good example is the proposed Spaceship II designed by Bert Rutan and involving your Richard Branson,’ he said. ‘Ideally I would want a number of people to be able to buy shares in the tourism project, maybe at $10 or $20 per share (£5–10). This would increase the number of people involved. Individuals would then be randomly selected to be able to take a trip, though there would have to be safeguards such as making the ticket non-transferable so that it didn’t turn into gambling.’
Running parallel to this vision is his company Starcraft Boosters, dedicated to the thorny issue of producing a reusable space vehicle to replace NASA’s Shuttle.
‘We have a talented group of three or four older, retired people who are trying to help NASA and the Air Force,’ he said. ‘There are two engineers in Texas, one in Virginia and myself in California.’
Starcraft is promoting the use of smaller, reusable boosters in the launch programme, and Aldrin is currently awaiting feedback on his designs from the US Airforce.
The company is also working with a manufacturer of executive jets to develop a spacecraft rather like a wingless, tail-less aircraft with a rocket inside. With the addition of a heat shield, this could be employed as a delivery vehicle for the International Space Station as well as being used for tourism.
But why does NASA need this help? As a scientist and indeed the first man in space with an engineering PhD (he holds a doctorate in astronautics from MIT and techniques he devised were used on NASA missions, including the first space docking with the Russian cosmonauts), he is concerned that after money was drained from the space programme in the 1980s and 1990s many of NASA’s top individuals were lost to more dynamic companies.
‘After Apollo and Skylab were complete some people stayed around for the development of the space shuttle, but a lot of talent went over to industry. We went almost six years without going into space. I don’t want that to happen again.’
Given his persistence, enthusiasm and the rate at which he is still producing innovations this seems most unlikely. But one thing is certain: if he cannot be up there with the astronauts, Aldrin will at least be manning the controls.