Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin

A best-selling author and one of only 12 men who have walked on the moon, Aldrin explains his passion for continuing exploration of the solar system.

In 1963, Buzz Aldrin became one of the early astronauts. He piloted Gemini 12 and the Apollo 11 lunar module—the first lunar landing—and was the second person to walk on the moon. Aldrin earned his pilot wings in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from West Point and flew fighter jets in the Korean War. He holds a doctorate degree from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics and has written three nonfiction books, two science fact/fiction novels and two children's books. At age 82, he continues to be influential and, in his latest book, Mission to Mars, advocates continuing exploration of our solar system at a time when America stands at a critical crossroads in its space program.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: In all of human history, only 12 men have walked on the moon, including Buzz Aldrin, who made his momentous stroll right after Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. Their historic landing 45 years ago was watched by some 600 million people around the globe.

He’s also designed docking and rendezvous techniques critical to both the Gemini and Apollo programs and has authored some eight texts now, including his latest, “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration.”

He also continues, of course, to be an advocate on behalf of scientific innovation and space travel. And I am always honored to have on this program Buzz Aldrin. Sir, good to see you again.

Buzz Aldrin: Thank you. It’s great to be back with you.

Tavis: Good to have you on again. Let me jump right in because I want you to make the case in the time that I have tonight. Why a mission to Mars?

Aldrin: Well, American greatness was elevated significantly after Sputnik. I’ve been asking myself why did we do that? Why did we have to catch up? And I’m putting together a foundation to look at space policy, how it has evolved, so we can maybe uncover some of the good things we did and some that are not so good.

Because the shape that we’re in right now is not good at all and you can’t blame it all on a half a percent of the budget. That hasn’t helped.

Tavis: But why do you think Mars is the place we ought to be shooting for? Why Mars?

Aldrin: Mars is so much more like the earth. It’s a little over 24 hours to rotate around. The slant of the poles in rotation is pretty close, 24, 23 degrees. That’s close. It has seasons. It certainly has ice at the poles and it’s pretty well established that, underneath a certain amount of dust, there’s maybe a frozen ocean.

I kind of like that theory. It’s probably wrong, but I’m always looking for why and how can we learn more and do things better.

And I feel very proud of having had some innovation occasionally, taking my fighter pilot experience about how we get in a perfect approach curve. That’s the same thing as rendezvous in space which we took.

And if the Gemini that I flew in the last mission is trying to catch the target, the Agena, around the earth, that’s not that much different from the earth catching up with Mars going around the sun.

So the rendezvous aspects led me to come up with something in 1985 that, to my knowledge, and that’s quite a while ago, nobody else had thought of. Why don’t we leave the earth, fly by Mars, then come back to the earth and then keep doing that?

Cycling back and forth, and that’s fundamental and it’s been improved on by Purdue University. And that’s another one of my stamps of innovation on what we can do in the future.

Tavis: So getting to the moon isn’t a piece of cake. I mean, it’s easier now than it was back in the day. That’s not a piece of cake, but Mars, that’s 150 times farther.

Aldrin: Well, that’s a good number, that’s a good number.

Tavis: That’s a long ways.

Aldrin: What’s important is that when we left, every mission, and that includes 24 human beings – some went more than once – 24 people in nine launches with the Saturn went to the moon and we went on a free return trajectory, which meant if there was something wrong after the rocket put us on course, we would swing around the moon and come back to the earth.

And the propulsion system had a redundancy to it because we had the lunar module engine in addition to the spacecraft. Those things don’t exist if you go to Mars. There’s no free return.

And another one of my innovative thoughts, of course, when you have something cycling around the earth and you’re gonna launch and catch up with it, that’s called a hyperbolic rendezvous. It’s a little more difficult because it has to be on time.

And then about five months later, you’re gonna swing by Mars and the landers are gonna enter the atmosphere and make a landing. But how are you gonna protect against a propulsion failure?

Well, it’s like a wartime pilot. If you’ve got a target, you could send one bomber there. It’ll get shot down. But if you send two fighters there, one of them is gonna get through. So you can have a dual launch and, instead of in formation, you bolt them together. Nobody’s thought of that before.

Tavis: Tell me why you think that Congress, given what’s happening to NASA now, would invest the kind of money it would take to get us to Mars in the first place? There are a lot folk who just don’t think that the political will is there to invest in a mission to Mars.

Aldrin: Well, it probably isn’t right now because the world, the country, especially our country right now, is focused on what’s in it for me right now, short term objectives. We’ve got political influences that have a lot to do with where that money is spent and on what it is spent.

The rocket that is being developed is a renamed rocket from a previous program. The Ares V is now the Space Launch System and Congress has mandated that it be built out of Heritage components. Now what does that mean to you?

Tavis: Old stuff.

Aldrin: Exactly! Those are my words! Old stuff.

Tavis: Right.

Aldrin: But it keeps people in the same jobs and it keeps the politicians getting reelected.

Tavis: Why not let private industry do this? There are a lot of people in private business who – why should this, at this point a mission to Mars, be a government project and not a…

Aldrin: Well, I agree and most people do who’ve been around the space program and many other programs that private industry can come up with less expensive and more innovative ways of accomplishing things.

Tavis: Since we are approaching the 45th anniversary of your walk, when you look back on it 45 years later, what do you think?

Aldrin: I’m amazed that a little blonde tow-head kid from Montclair, New Jersey could have taken advantage of parents. My father was a pioneer in aviation and he knew the right people somehow and it just got into my blood.

But I was disqualified because I hadn’t gone through test pilot training. I didn’t really want to be the best stick and rudder person. I shot down two airplanes in Korea, so I wasn’t a slouch. But I just didn’t want my future to be in aviation. I wanted it to be in space activities and that’s what I continued to pursue.

And finally the doors swung open and Buzz walked in the door and a lot of things have been happening that have been very fortunate to Buzz whose mother’s maiden name was Marion Moon.

Tavis: Marion Moon [laugh].

Aldrin: Moon [laugh]. You didn’t know that?

Tavis: I did not know that. You learn something every day around here. How cool is that?

Aldrin: Well, it’s…

Tavis: Mother named Marion Moon and you end up…

Aldrin: Almost as cool as having the name “Buzz.”

Tavis: Buzz, yeah [laugh]. His name is Buzz Aldrin. His latest text, his eighth, is called “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration” and that is the big question. Will we ever get to Mars? Buzz, good to have you on.

Aldrin: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you, sir.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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  • Peter Broxham

    Buzz Aldrin, he is the heartbeat of the space program. More people need to listen to the man. Great man, fantastic astronaut and just a really nice person. God bless him.

Last modified: July 8, 2014 at 12:22 pm