Buzz Aldrin represents what, for many people, is one of America's greatest ever achievements. The former astronaut speaks to Arabian Business about commercial space exploration, life on Mars, and why he will never be happy with being second
As the world marks the 50th anniversary since the Apollo 11 moon landing, we look back at Arabian Business' 2014 exclusive interview with legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“Every five years I get invited to the White House,” Buzz Aldrin says. “Sometimes I get a hotdog, sometimes I get to say something.”
The legendary US astronaut is in an expansive mood as he reflects on the upcoming 45th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing that made him and the man who walked one small step ahead of him on 20 July 1969 household names.
“The 50th anniversary is a big deal, but now the important individuals that should come to mind are not the gold medal winner, but all competitors, they are all people that achieved something,” he continues.
“Twenty four people reached the moon, not all of them landed. But somebody had to go there first to see that it was okay and look at things, a couple of times, to see that everything would work. Then when we did something we had to get back, so somebody had to bring us back. They didn’t get to land — and they weren’t first.
“There’s only two of 12 people who’ve landed on the moon that are going to be labelled by a number. Number one and number two: number one isn’t here any more, but I can almost guarantee you that I will always be introduced as the second man on the moon.”
At the age of 84, the man who spent 12 days, one hour and 52 minutes in space over his nine-year career with NASA is by no means ambivalent about the significance of the title afforded him almost five decades ago following the most famous of his two missions for the US space agency.
Accepting it is another matter. “No,” he says when asked if he is okay with his place in history behind Apollo crew mate Neil Armstrong. “But I can’t do anything about it. I was told by a very wise person: you can’t change history, you can’t change the way people label things, the way newspapers want big winners or big losers.
50 years ago today, people around the globe gathered at their radios & televisions to join two humans as they landed on the Moon for the first time. As they took one small step, a giant leap was accomplished. Relive and understand this #Apollo50th moment: https://t.co/hjMvyVMKVy pic.twitter.com/aPS1GyUY81— NASA (@NASA) July 20, 2019
“When you write a biography or authorise a biography and it’s titled First Man, that’s okay if you’re the first man. If you’re the last man and that’s important to you, who cares if you’re the last man or not or next to last.
“I’m perfectly happy with the cards that have been dealt to me, because it motivates me to make more out of opportunities that I was given.”
As we approach tomorrow’s moon landing anniversary, I reflect on our approaching the Moon 50 years ago. There was a sense of excitement, anticipation, focus, and purpose. This was it - America was going to accomplish the “impossible”. #Apollo50 #ApolloXI https://t.co/lzwPkp1k9p— Buzz Aldrin (@TheRealBuzz) July 20, 2019
There is no arguing Aldrin, who retired from active duty in 1972 after roles in the Air Force, NASA and then again the Air Force, has done just that. While Armstrong was known as an extraordinarily private man right up until his death two years ago, Aldrin has been more comfortable in the spotlight.
With seven books to his name — the most recent being the 2013 title Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration — Aldrin also works the global speaking circuit and has over the years lent his celebrity to various exploits such as video games, movie appearances, cartoon cameos, dancing television competitions and phone applications. The thrice-married Aldrin, whose third divorce even made headlines last year, has also written about and publicly discussed the personal topic of his battle with alcoholism and depression.
“Well, I don’t mean to be clever, trite or anything but if somebody asks me what is my driving force in life, it’s to serve my country,” the Korean War fighter pilot tells me about why he still feels the need to unveil new ideas for space exploration at a time when others would be happy to spend their days on a Florida beach.
“I took an oath to do that when I was just 17 years old and I’ve fought in combat, been to the moon, been down to the Titanic, ridden on whale sharks. There’s a reason usually — I have fun doing a lot of these things and I feel challenged to do a lot of things and I feel very gifted to be able to look at the way we’re doing things and maybe find a better way, find a more doable, an easier way. I’m not that smart a business person, but I am smart in knowing where I can find a way to do something a little bit better. Now, if it’s something that I came up with I want to see it successful, I want to see it as much through to completion.”
It’s this drive and an extraordinary capacity for problem solving that helped Aldrin pioneer the orbital rendezvous technique that would eventually be critical to the successful moon landing. The technique, which he developed as his doctoral thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after he left the Air Force, also earned him his second nickname, ‘Dr Rendezvous’. His first moniker, Buzz, has been the legal name of Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr since 1988.
These days, however, his focus is on an even greater enterprise — that of humans landing on, and colonising, Earth’s nearest neighbour, Mars. While NASA has recently announced its plans for the Asteroid Redirect Mission as a precursor to getting humans to Mars by the 2030s, Aldrin believes “human-to-Mars transportation” can be under way much earlier, starting with a dual robotic and human mission in 2025.
Explaining his Unified Space Vision the next day to a captivated audience at the second Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi, he says using the Aldrin Cycler System he pioneered in the 1980s as a sustainable transportation system between the two planets, a facility could be built on one of Mars’ two moons as a springboard for landing on the red planet.
Whilst complex, and acknowledging the myriad challenges of landing in Mars’ low-density atmosphere, the lack of fuel and obvious sustainable sources of water, Aldrin’s vision would result in colonisation by the 2030s rather than merely a landing. He argues that living on Mars, which is an average 225 million km, 150-day minimum journey away at its closest orbital position from Earth, is easier than the moon and that it actually has vast swathes of ocean that have been frozen over and covered with dust.
However, there is a catch. Once on Mars, there is no turning back.
“There’s absolutely no question in my mind that the purpose of putting humans on Mars is to land there and to stay there,” Aldrin says. “And if we’re not ready to stay there, then we shouldn’t land at all. To some it might sound like science fiction, but that’s what people thought when [US president John F] Kennedy made the commitment to go to the moon.”
Aldrin says that like Kennedy’s famous declaration in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, a leader or enabler “with sufficient funds” needs to today make a public commitment about colonising Mars that is backed by a comprehensive plan with a solid timeframe, adding that the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 2019 would be opportune for such an announcement.
Funding such an ambitious mission, he says, needs to be on an international scale. And, he also believes burgeoning aerospace player China needs to be involved with its space station after the “obstacles that we have set up” for co-operation with the Chinese are removed in the same way the US and former USSR saw fit to facilitate the symbolic Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in 1975.
“I don’t believe that landing on Mars is going to be a private venture,” Aldrin says. “It could, but we’ve done things like that on Earth in the past but the pay-off has been pretty expensive. It’s a little difficult to land people on the moon and get a financial return from it. It’s what you develop as the result of doing that — your stature in the international community and what that leads to in inspiration and advancing technology in many areas is where the pay-off is.”
However, whoever wins the race to Mars will be remembered more than any other in history.
“Long-term investments by governments don’t do very well, because politicians love immediate pay-offs. But a hundred, a thousand years from now a world leader who makes that kind of commitment and sees it through, establishing humanity on another planet… I could compare that with almost any human being that has been alive on this planet and say a person who does that is going to be remembered in history more than any other person,” he says.
Speak to Aldrin for any length of time and you’ll find his passion for space and capacity for new ideas infectious. A question about the role of the Middle East in commercial space travel can lead to Aldrin’s thoughts on the Cold War, with interviewees pre-warned about his penchant for “long answers”.
But such is his big brain for the subject at hand and his international standing in its evolving legacy that it is genuinely a pleasure for those who meet Aldrin not to interrupt.
Aldrin says commercial investment, including from the UAE, will play a role in the future development of space. While the Cold War provided an artificial salient into space, he believes the private sector is “finally ready” to fill the subsequent void.
“It may well be that NASA is not the best agency to exploit space,” Aldrin admits. “Exploitation has maybe never been its strong point — we should consider… lunar transitions to other commercial interests and to US government agencies more adapt at identifying and exploiting scientific opportunities.”
While the moon landing was trail-blazing, and for that reason, in Aldrin’s view, does not have to nor will be repeated, it was also expensive — chewing through 4 percent of the US government’s discretionary budget at the height of the Apollo programme in the 1960s, with NASA administrator James Webb famously doubling the funding figure given to him by engineers on the way to Kennedy’s office. These days, NASA receives about 1.5 percent of US discretionary funds.
Aldrin is a big supporter of space tourism, including the efforts of companies such as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and US firm XCOR Aerospace, the latter of which he believes will be the first to achieve the first commercial sub-orbital space flight despite a 2015 inaugural flight timeframe versus Virgin’s latest revised date of late 2014.
He has long since abandoned his own idea 20 years ago for a space lottery through his ShareSpace Foundation, but is an ambassador for XCOR’s programme, which has to date given away 22 sub-orbital flights with plans for more. For Aldrin it is about making space accessible to ordinary people rather than something only “governments or the rich can do”. “I’m very excited to see the dream of space tourism really coming to fruition in many ways,” he says.
Aldrin, who was 39 years old when he boarded Apollo 11 for his place in history, describes his own path into space as a mix of luck and determination. The New Jersey-born son of a doctor of aeronautics (Aldrin’s son, Andy, has also carried on the tradition working for United Launch Alliance and now moon resources venture Moon Express) was initially rejected by NASA on his first application in 1962. Despite, he says, shooting down two MiG-15s during the Korean War, he didn’t have the required test pilot experience. He reapplied, and was successful, the following year when the rule was changed.
He says the timing of crew rotation was “just right” for Armstrong, himself and lunar command module pilot Michael Collins to be chosen for the moon landing mission. The trio, who spent eight days cooped up in a space capsule the size of a Volkswagen as they hurtled 40,230km/hr towards the moon and back again, had discussed their chances of success during various pre-mission “bar room talks”. They settled on 60 percent for actually landing on the lunar surface and 95 percent for returning to Earth safely. “I liked that, 95 percent, that sounded pretty good,” Aldrin recalls.
He says while they could have aborted the lunar landing, there was no “Plan B” if the descent capsule which carried Armstrong and himself refused to ascend and “rendezvous” with Collins who remained in the command module orbiting the moon. “You use every bit of oxygen you have and then you just fall asleep,” he says of the pair’s contingency plan. Luckily, the only real drama was the well-documented incident of a broken off circuit breaker, which Aldrin fixed using a felt-tip pen.
On the return journey, Aldrin, a Presbyterian who famously took Communion on the moon using a home kit — something he later reportedly regretted as it was a Christian sacrament and the landing was in the name of all mankind — recalls feeling “happy to be on our way home”.
Almost 45 years later and on another trip, this time merely across the Atlantic to the UAE, he tells Arabian Business he is planning to indulge in his passion for scuba diving at the invitation of legendary American music producer and friend, Quincy Jones, who co-produced rap song Rocket Experience to raise money for ShareSpace five years ago, to explore the region’s waters. Aldrin, who has clearly retained his taste for adventure, shows me a desktop photograph on his iPad of him swimming with a whale shark about 60 feet beneath the ocean’s surface in the Galapagos Islands, with “hammerhead sharks circling around”.
“Humans inherently have a need to explore, push beyond current limits,” he says. “Apollo is the story of people at their best working together for a common goal. We started with a dream, we can do these kinds of things again.”