Forty-five years after man first landed on the moon, one of the men who was there is worried that the U.S. has become lost in space.
With the anniversary Sunday of Apollo 11’s giant leap for mankind, Buzz Aldrin sees a moribund American space program without a major task to conquer while a geopolitical rival is going full steam ahead, reminding him of the Soviet launch of the first man-made satellite in 1957. Only the U.S. isn’t reacting now as it did then.
“We’re in the worst position we’ve ever been in,” he told The Washington Times. “We’re in worse competitive shape than after Sputnik.”
Mr. Aldrin knows a thing or two about space. He was part of NASA’s space exploration for many years, flying first in the Gemini 12 mission, and then as part of Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, when he became the second man to walk on the moon. A photo of Mr. Aldrin, taken on the moon’s surface by Armstrong, has become one of the most iconic images of human history.
But the U.S. could soon lose its position at the forefront of space exploration and be surpassed by nations such as China, Mr. Aldrin warned.
In 2010, because of budget constraints and concerns that the rockets in development weren’t adequate, President Obama canceled the Constellation program, which was viewed as the successor to the space shuttle and which would have put mankind on the path to visiting Mars.
Now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is trying to figure out the next steps, using the last remaining piece of the canceled program: the command module Orion, which was to house the astronauts. But Mr. Aldrin said there are still concerns that the new spacecraft may be too heavy and too expensive, or would launch too infrequently.
The current plan is to use a robot to capture a small asteroid and bring it into the moon’s orbit, where the first astronauts launched on Orion could study it.
In the meantime, the International Space Station is slated for decommissioning in 2024, a year after China’s planned space station is set to be completed.
NASA plans eventually to land people back on the moon.
“Where’s our space program now?” Mr. Aldrin said. “The president’s telling us we’re going to do in 10 or 15 years the same thing we did back in ‘69, ‘70.
“That’s not going to be very popular to the American people,” he said.
Instead, he said, the U.S. must set its sights on a celestial body beyond the moon: Mars.
Mr. Aldrin said he and fellow moonwalker Armstrong often would discuss what the next step should be.
“He wanted to go back to the moon, and I wanted to go to Mars,” Mr. Aldrin said. “But I don’t want to go to Mars by ignoring the moon.”
There’s much the U.S. can do to prepare for an eventual trip to the Earth’s nearest planet, he said, starting with building stations at two Lagrange points — locations in space named for an 18th-century astronomer where the effects of the moon’s and Earth’s gravities are equal. The stations would allow greater communication and transportation to and from the lunar surface.
The U.S. also could coordinate further international lunar missions, such as sending construction equipment to help other nations build laboratories on the surface. Likewise, the U.S. could develop standards of construction so that all the labs, modules and units could be linked together easily — no matter what nation built them.
The planned mission to the asteroid could be a key opportunity to test a rocket’s capabilities before the long flight to Mars, Mr. Aldrin said, and should incorporate a robot that could stay behind to study the asteroid long after humans leave.
Regardless of political differences, he said, the U.S. and China should attempt to cooperate for human space exploration. Indeed, 2020 will be the 45th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, when U.S. and Soviet spacecraft docked together in orbit — a symbolic time for the U.S. and China to perform a similar feat, he said.
Mr. Aldrin is concerned, however, that people in Washington may not be remembering history as well as they should. He is worried that not enough is being done to mark the 45th anniversary of the first lunar landing and that the monumental 50th may go uncelebrated.
So he is calling on Mr. Obama to create some ambassadorships — lunar ambassadors, to be exact.
Mr. Aldrin said he hopes the president will name him, Mr. Collins, and a member of the Armstrong’s family as lunar ambassadors to represent, educate and support space exploration endeavors with an eye on the future. Armstrong died in 2012.
Likewise, he wants named as ambassadors the crews of Apollo 8, 9 and 13 — missions that didn’t land on the moon but laid important groundwork (or, in the case of 13, became an incredible survival tale).
Over the next five years until the anniversary in 2019, Mr. Aldrin said, he hopes the president will extend the same honor to the crews of the next lunar missions: Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17.
“I know there’s a 50 coming, and I’m trying to lay the groundwork,” he said. “If we want to have a big deal for the 50th, we just can’t slough off the 45th.
“The nation will be extolling all the benefits from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo,” he said. “This is the 50th anniversary of carrying out Kennedy’s ‘Within this decade’” call to land a man on the moon.
So far, there has been no word from the White House. Calls from The Washington Times to the press office about what Mr. Obama is planning to do for the anniversary have gone unanswered.
The benefits of space exploration have been much more widespread than many people realize, Mr. Aldrin said. For example, the demand for smaller and lighter electronics on the spacecraft helped fuel the computer and microchip revolution that has transformed society.
Another big bonus, Mr. Aldrin said, is education.
“You never heard anyone in the ‘60s or ‘70s mention the word STEM: science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “Why? Because we were at the top of the world. We didn’t have to stimulate our education.”
Without the focus on major accomplishments such as space exploration, desire for those areas of education has been slipping.
“We’re not there anymore. We’re down below,” Mr. Aldrin said.
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of man’s first lunar landing, Mr. Aldrin has launched the #Apollo45 social media campaign. He is hoping people will post memories of where they were when the Apollo 11 lander, Eagle, first touched down on the moon. (Or, for people who weren’t born yet, stories of how the lunar missions affected them.)
A number of notable individuals have agreed to post videos to the Apollo45 YouTube channel through July 20, including scientists Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and entertainers such as Stephen Colbert and Tim Allen.
Although honoring and remembering the past is important, Mr. Aldrin said, he wants people to set their eyes on the future. Indeed, Mr. Aldrin, who has become so closely associated with the lunar missions, said he hopes he will be remembered instead for his efforts to reach the Red Planet.
“The men who went to the moon, their legacy is having gone to the moon in their lifetime. That’s not my legacy,” he said. “My legacy is the future, someone who’s been spending his life trying to figure out how to get a gradual, coherent plan to get people on Mars.
“What is going to happen in the [‘20s], ‘30s and ‘40s when I’m dead and my son’s carrying on?” Mr. Aldrin asked. He said he hopes people will say, “We know how to do that.
“Look, we just went to Mars. We stayed, we came back, we know how to do that. We showed the world how to do that.”
Whoever makes that commitment will have a profound effect on history, Mr. Aldrin said, greater even than the ruler of Spain who sent Christopher Columbus on a trip across the ocean.
“The world leader that makes a commitment of establishing a growing habitation, a growing existence of humanity on another planet, that person has set in motion more than Queen Isabella ever thought of,” Mr. Aldrin said. “To me, that’s a really big deal.”