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The man on the Moon looks to Mars

Buzz Aldrin on the next frontier of space exploration

Created date

July 23rd, 2013
Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration

When astronaut Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon in July 1969, the world watched in awe. They had witnessed the ultimate in human exploration, man having gone farther than he had ever gone before.

But as is human nature, we always look to the next challenge, and for decades, Aldrin has had his eye on Mars. Recently, he spoke with the Tribune about his book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration (National Geographic, 2013).

Tribune: When we talk about visiting Mars, it sounds like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel. But in reading your book, it’s obvious that this is within our grasp.

Aldrin: The book very clearly gives the background—in eight chapters—of my thinking [on Mars]. What always pleases me is discussing the actions that this nation can take to once again become a world leader in space transportation, expanding the human presence into the solar system.

Tribune: Of course, it’s not without its challenges, foremost among them being transportation. How does the Aldrin Mars Cycler work as a means of getting there?

Aldrin: The Aldrin Mars Cycler can deliver people from Earth to a spacecraft capable of landing on Mars. The primary purpose of the system is to get people from Earth to the surface of Mars in a short period of time.

Tribune: And this is based on something called a “cycling orbit”? What is that?

Aldrin: A “cycler” is an elliptical orbit around the Sun that swings slightly inside the Earth’s orbit and encounters the Earth; then it goes out and swings beyond Mars and returns to Earth again, having rotated its orbit slightly. It continually swings by Earth and then Mars, using the best position for this mode of transportation.

This should enable us to travel to Mars in about five months and get back in about five months. There are also interesting variations of that technique—a gravity assisted swing-by—that poses attractive choices for occupying Mars, first through unmanned landings (like Curiosity), and then manned landings.

Tribune: And what is your position on visiting Mars and, possibly, colonizing it?

Aldrin: If the human species decides to occupy another planet, I don’t think that we should simply go there, visit, and come back. We should be prepared to create a growing settlement on Mars. Until we’re able to do that, I don’t think we should go through the significant expense of sending someone there just yet.

We need to be fully prepared to get humans to Mars and keep them there, building up to a permanent settlement.

Tribune: When do you predict that will happen?

Aldrin: I’m an optimist. I’m also 83 years old, so I’d like to see certain things occur that would lead to that opportunity. The time of the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing in July 2019, I believe, would be a good time for that to happen. I hope that it will inspire future generations about space exploration in the same way that the Moon landing did in 1969.

Tribune: In the book, you discuss using one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, as a waypoint or stepping stone to manned exploration of Mars.

Aldrin: I chose Phobos because it’s closer and it’s larger. Furthermore, the fact that a unique object has been photographed at Phobos—something called “the monolith” (a vertical structure perhaps 90 meters high)—is very interesting.

Its origin fuels a great discussion amongst people who debate what it is; and we need people thinking about Mars, about the moons of Mars, and about what we might find when we get there. After all, getting the public behind something is more than half the battle.

Tribune: Once on Mars, what are the potential sources of sustenance there?

Aldrin: I am primarily a mission planner for transportation systems, so my expertise doesn’t quite center on sustainability, but I have had some thoughts on the matter. I think that we will have fusion energy available for power by that time. There have been improvements on solar energy as well.

The water there is in the form of subsurface ice, and that can be combined with the nutrients of the surface to grow foods, which would lessen the need for sending food by cargo.

I’m working with a group at NASA that has been exploring locations in Hawaii that can be used as a simulated Mars surface, where we can begin to place prototypes of the base that we’d like to build on Mars.

Tribune: What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Aldrin: I hope they get a better understanding of what is soon to come. People have been talking about returning to the Moon, but I don’t think doing what we’ve already done 50 years ago is going to be well-received by the American people.

Mars is the next logical step, without a doubt.