When Buzz Aldrin returned from the moon in 1969 and saw all the earthly hoopla that surrounded the Apollo 11 mission, he turned to his fellow moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, and said: "We missed the whole thing."
Forty-five years later, Aldrin doesn't intend to miss any of the buzz: He's orchestrating a social media campaign called #Apollo45, complete with a string of celebrity YouTube videos, to mark the anniversary and jump-start his four-point plan for space exploration and settlement.
"This country is enamored with celebrities," Aldrin, 84, told NBC News. "To carry it to the extreme, at the Olympics, the gold-medal winners are the celebrities. We don't seem to care that much about the silver, the bronze and the others. ... There is an emphasis on who gets the Oscar, who gets the Grammy, on Hollywood, on people who are known."
The #Apollo45 celebrities include actors such as Tom Hanks, Stephen Colbert and John Travolta; space luminaries such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy and former NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan; and officials such as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
But Aldrin doesn't want #Apollo45 limited to the celebs: He's calling on regular folks to share their moonshot memories and their hopes for the future via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter — avenues for interaction that weren't even twinkles in their creators' eyes when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.
The campaign already has generated hundreds of tweets and Facebook comments — a response that has Aldrin looking ahead as well as looking back.
"These anniversaries mean a lot to me, especially with the 50th anniversary coming up with a new president," Aldrin said. "That individual, that president, has a potential of going down in history more than almost anyone who has lived on the planet Earth, by committing human beings to an international, American-led permanence on the planet Mars."
Point 1: Bring China on board
That's the ultimate goal of Aldrin's four-point plan, which begins with China. Aldrin noted that yet another big anniversary was coming up in 2015: the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which blazed the trail for U.S.-Russian cooperation in space in 1975.
Aldrin said July 2015 would be a "very opportune time" for the first docking of a Chinese spacecraft with the International Space Station. U.S.-Chinese space cooperation is currently banned by U.S. law, but Aldrin said that situation had to change.
"That is so essential to restoring the position of leadership of the United States, by not competing with China or any other nation to send humans to the surface of the moon," he said.
Point 2: Put robots to work on the moon
Aldrin believes the moon still needs to be one of the long-term destinations for humanity, and he thinks President Barack Obama made a mistake by dismissing lunar visits as a case of "been there, done that." But he agrees that it needn't be up to NASA to put astronauts back on the moon.
Instead, he favors setting up crewed outposts at the Earth-moon gravitational balance points known as L1 and L2. From there, astronauts from different countries can manage robotic operations on the lunar surface.
"Eventually, other nations, or the world [as a whole] will want a permanent habitat laboratory on the near side and the far side" of the moon, Aldrin said.
NASA has suggested that commercial ventures could play a key role in future lunar missions — and it just so happens that one of Aldrin's sons, Andrew Aldrin, is the president of Moon Express, one of the teams that's going after a piece of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Buzz Aldrin said Andrew is prepared "to carry on my legacy when I'm not able to continue doing that."
If Moon Express and other lunar ventures can perfect telerobotic operations, that would represent a not-so-small step toward a giant Martian leap.
Point 3: Dig into asteroids, robotically
Aldrin isn't exactly fired up about all the aspects of NASA's plan to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by the mid-2020s. "We have this asteroid mission that's going to bring a rock back. People are going to go up there and open the hatch, chip off some pieces of the rock and bring them back," he said. "In many people's minds, including mine, that's a waste of time and money."
However, he acknowledges that a hybrid human-robotic mission could help demonstrate the capabilities that would be required for the more ambitious deep-space journeys to Mars and its moons. "After humans leave the asteroid, the robotic exploration can continue, remotely controlled from Earth," Aldrin says in his four-point outline.
Point 4: Get settled on Mars and its moons
All these human-robotic efforts, plus mission simulations in Hawaii, would lead up to a years-long crewed mission to Phobos, the bigger of Mars' two moons. Just as lunar robots could be controlled by human operators at the Earth-moon gravitational balance points, robots on Mars could be controlled from an operations center on Phobos.
Aldrin said it would be easier to let the robots build habitats on Mars for the eventual human settlers, rather than forcing the humans to start from scratch on the Red Planet's surface. A base on Phobos would eliminate the minutes-long delay in back-and-forth communications.
Aldrin said his "cycler" concept for a space transit system could be part of a U.S.-led effort aimed at establishing a permanent Mars colony within two decades. (SpaceX founder Elon Musk, however, is doubtful that the cycler concept would work, at least at first.)
Humans living on Mars by the end of the decade of the 2030s? In Aldrin's view, it's essential for the U.S. president to commit the country to such a vision — and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing would be the perfect time to do it.
"I could almost write the speech for whoever is president on July 20, 2019," Aldrin said.
Postscript: Buzz reflects on Neil
This year marks the first five-year milestone for Apollo 11's legacy since Neil Armstrong's death due to heart problems in 2012, and Aldrin said that means it's particularly important for #Apollo45 to keep that legacy alive.
It's a time to pay tribute to the accomplishments of Armstrong, Aldrin and the mission's third crew member, command module pilot Michael Collins — as well as the accomplishments of the tens of thousands of space workers who supported them back on Earth.
"I really feel strongly that the success of Apollo in landing on the moon, compared to the Soviet Union, had an awful lot to do with ending the Cold War," Aldrin said.
Aldrin said Armstrong was "indisputably, probably the best test pilot" in Apollo's astronaut corps, but he also acknowledged that "there was somewhat of a contrast in the personalities between Neil and myself."
"We did not agree on all the things that should be done in the future," Aldrin noted.
In the years before his death, Armstrong advocated an approach that would have had NASA return to "the lunar vicinity" with an Apollo-style program. He also raised red flags about NASA's move toward space commercialization, and favored keeping NASA's shuttle fleet in operation. In contrast, Aldrin has been a longtime booster for commercial ventures in space, and has promoted missions to Mars as opposed to a return to the moon.
Armstrong was famous for staying out of the spotlight, while Aldrin tends to seek it out. But Aldrin told NBC News that his primary motivation isn't fame or fortune. Instead, it's the same motivation he had as a 17-year-old cadet at West Point, when he swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
"When someone asks me what is my driving purpose in life, it's to serve my country," Aldrin said.
Update for 5:40 p.m. ET July 8: Aldrin handled scores of questions during a Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything") chat session on Tuesday. Here are a few nuggets:
- When asked about favorite music, Aldrin said he preferred "the soft singing voice of Karen Carpenter."
- Favorite space movie? "2001: A Space Odyssey." Aldrin said he hoped to retrieve some underwater treasure during a scuba dive with Arthur C. Clarke, the late author of "2001" and other science-fiction novels. "That never happened, unfortunately."
- Aldrin acknowledged that some of the effects in the movie "Gravity" bent the laws of physics, but nevertheless said the depiction of zero gravity "was really the best I have seen."
- When asked about people who claim the moon landings were faked, Aldrin replied, "I personally don't waste very much of my time on what is so obvious to a really thinking person."
- Aldrin referred to his sighting of a bright "unidentified flying object" during the trip to the moon. "It was either the rocket we had separated from, or the four panels that moved away when we extracted the [lunar] lander from the rocket. ... It was not an alien," he said.
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NBC News space correspondent Jay Barbree, author of "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight," will discuss the Apollo legacy on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that airs on Blog Talk Radio and in the Exploratorium's Second Life virtual auditorium. The show, originally set for Wednesday, has been rescheduled for July 21 at 8 p.m. ET due to logistical complications.