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Buzz Aldrin plans the next giant leap

In an exclusive interview, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin reflects on his lunar mission and his latest mission: opening the space frontier.
/ Source: Special to MSNBC

Back in 1969, the full significance of Apollo 11 didn’t dawn upon moonwalker Buzz Aldrin until after he and Neil Armstrong splashed down back on Earth. That realization led him to the mission that consumes him 30 years later: getting masses of ordinary people into outer space. It’s a mission that rules out his own return to orbit, Aldrin said in an exclusive interview.

Apollo 11 assured Armstrong and Aldrin a place in the history books as the first humans to land on another world, on July 20, 1969. But at the time, Aldrin says, he was concentrating on the long list of tasks at hand — and, during the few seconds that were left over, appreciating the grand adventure. He says there was no conscious effort at history-making.

“There really wasn’t much guidance and emphasis by NASA on the P.R. aspects,” he told MSNBC during an interview at his home in Los Angeles. “There were requirements on the panorama photography and the photographs of the lunar module. But as far as taking a picture of the flag? That just was not something that was scheduled.”

History sinks in
For Aldrin, the history of it all sunk in when he and Armstrong returned to Earth and were sailing home on the USS Hornet in the Pacific. He saw tapes of the TV coverage, showing millions gathered around small sets and giant screens around the world.

On the moon, he recalled, “there are only two of you who are watching what’s going on — there’s not a big crowd that you’re trying to please.” But seeing the replay on Earth, he saw that there was a global, awestruck audience.

“That’s when I said to Neil, ‘Look, hey, we missed the whole thing.’ Because the importance was here, and it was the people watching, participating that was the significance and the momentous nature of Apollo. Not the rocks that were brought back, but the involvement of masses of people.”

Downs and ups
Since then, Aldrin’s life has gone through downs and ups. The pressures and disappointments that followed Apollo 11 became overwhelming. He went through depression, alcoholism, divorce. But then there was the slow climb back from the depths: recovery, temperance, remarriage and renewed purpose.

“When you reach some kind of setback or discouragement, a bottoming-out of hope or expectations, you make a change,” Aldrin said. “You grow, and you’re stimulated by that growth to creativity.”

The MIT-trained Air Force flier — who was known as “Dr. Rendezvous” at NASA for his contribution to the development of orbital maneuvers essential to Apollo’s success — set to work devising better ways to get people and payloads into space. It was a follow-up to his insight into the public’s mesmerizing fascination with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“Everybody alive who witnessed that remembers it, and they remember where they were because it made an impact on their lives,” he said. “And maybe that’s why my emphasis today is not on sending individual explorers someplace, but … letting a broad, wide number of people experience it.”

Sending two or even 10 people into space at a time can never become economical, he said. In Aldrin’s view, commercial space travel can’t become a reality until launch vehicles can carry hundreds of people. By satisfying the public’s yearning for space flight, he said, “so many other things will come along: Our spacecraft will get better, there’ll be a higher flight rate, they’ll be economical, they’ll be larger, and they’ll be better able to support sending explorers back to the moon and on to Mars.”

Space lottery
The first part of Aldrin’s plan, put forward through his ShareSpace Foundation, calls for establishing a lottery to select ordinary citizens for space flight — provided they meet fitness requirements.

The risks of space shuttle flight are still significantly higher than commercial airline travel. But Aldrin believes many would accept that hazard in order to experience space. Certainly most former astronauts would: “I think most people who have been in space generally would want to give it another try,” he said.

How about Aldrin himself? “No,” he said. “The answer is no, because I am dedicated to my effort toward getting other people in space, and there’s no way to avoid the suspicion that I’m out to get myself another ride… So I’m not out to do that.”

New generation of launch vehicles
But ShareSpace is just the first step, aimed at whetting the public’s appetite. Aldrin says it’s essential to develop a new generation of reusable, heavy-lift vehicles to support sufficiently high traffic into orbit and, ultimately, beyond.

Juggling an assortment of scale models designed by his company, he enthusiastically explains a launch system with liquid flyback boosters, capable of lofting heavy payloads or hundreds of people into geosynchronous orbit more than 20,000 miles above Earth. Spent fuel tanks could be used to construct space hotels that travel a perpetual circuit between Earth and the moon.

Similar “Starcyclers” could make trips to Mars and back — building on the Gemini rendezvous techniques he helped develop more than three decades ago. Today, “Dr. Rendezvous” devises clever orbital trajectories that he believes will one day make continuous shuttling between Earth, the moon, planets and mines on the asteroids a profitable proposition.

The mission of his small company, Starcraft Enterprises, is to get aerospace companies to buy into the idea. “I gotta say it’s brilliant, and I gotta say I’m very disappointed that more people have not caught onto the major significance of this Mars strategy,” he said. “It’s another example of narrow-minded thinking, of ‘not invented here,’ of egos of corporations, of egos of government bureaucracies.

“Let’s all get together and get to Mars, but get people in space first.” He let the whole audacious idea sink in for a moment — then, with an extra sparkle in his eyes, he added: “It’s better than a piddling Gemini rendezvous.”

On other topics:

Aldrin addressed his controversial push

for a decision whether he or Armstrong, the mission’s commander, would be the first to step out of the lunar module and onto the moon. At the time, Aldrin unsuccessfully argued that, on the basis of Gemini spacewalk protocol, the second in command should have gone out first.

“Can you imagine an astronaut not wanting to push?” Aldrin said. “We got where we are because we wanted to be there.”

Aldrin says his primary concern was simply to get the decision made, because it was affecting simulations of the landing. “I didn’t particularly care about the great notoriety that was going to come from anything we were doing,” he said. Nevertheless, he is fond of correcting people when they refer to him as the second man to walk on the moon. “I was a member of the first lunar landing crew,” he offers instead.

Aldrin recalled the moon landing itself as an intense experience, though perhaps not in terms as desperate as some accounts have made it out to be.

For example, the repeated computer alarms that went off during the descent were “just a little glitch,” he said. “The net effect of all of this is that it distracts your train of concentration and thought on what you’re about, which is to land on the moon. So you need to get back to that as soon as possible.”

He claimed responsibility for leaving the switch on that overloaded the computer and caused the alarm. That switch powered a second radar for tracking the escape path back up to the orbiting command module.

“Here was Dr. Rendezvous going to the moon — he wasn’t about to turn the rendezvous radar off,” he said with a smile. “That was essential. I don’t know why people didn’t assume that would be the normal case.”

He acknowledged that the lunar module’s fuel dwindled down to less than 30 seconds’ worth during the descent, tightening stomachs from lunar orbit to Houston. “I don’t remember that in any of our simulator training we got (to) 60 seconds,” he said. That last minute before landing lasted “a long time,” Aldrin said.

At last, there was the moment of contact, when the astronauts knew they had achieved the goal set years before. “As far as a satisfaction of a responsibility that has built up, nothing could even begin to come close,” he said.

Then what did he do? He patted Armstrong on the shoulder and immediately went back to business: The pair rehearsed the procedures for lifting off again for rendezvous with the command module.

“If something does go wrong, for the first couple of minutes after landing, you should lift off right away,” he said. “Beyond that, you should wait… because you can’t catch the other guy. The next opportunity is going to be two hours later, and that should be a normal liftoff.”

Aldrin discussed the long-term reasons for exploring space. “In the very long haul, it may save the human race because it may give us an off-planet settlement that would survive an Earth-destroying impact,” he said. “More important is that it gives vision to our young people in the future, who with the information age are more and more obsessed with the short-term payoff.”

He feared that the current Internet-fueled economy was focusing too much attention on a “get rich quick” perspective, and that political leaders were basing their decisions too much on what would get them through the next election. Aldrin hoped that the country’s next president could lay out a new vision for the coming decades of expanded space exploration.

“This is what’s needed in 2001 with the new administration…an enabling commitment that lets us focus on carrying that out,” he said.

Photojournalist Roger Ressmeyer is the author of “Space Places” and editor of “Orbit - NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth.” MSNBC’s Alan Boyle contributed to this report.