This story was first published in CoFounder No 10 in late 2017.
“Get your ass to MARS” reads the message on Buzz Aldrin’s T-shirt at his home in Florida. He gets a standing ovation from a couple of thousand people in the dark auditorium on the other side of the ocean.
Aldrin was second only to his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong to walk on the Moon on 21 July 1969. Now at the age of 87, on the eve of celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the visit, he has set his eyes firmly on Mars.
To hear Aldrin and other moonwalkers’ visions on the future of space exploration we travelled all the way to the Starmus Festival in Trondheim, Norway. Landing in +10 degrees after Barcelona’s +30 felt comparable to Aldrin’s landing on the Moon some 48 years earlier.
“Beautiful view,” said Aldrin, as his first words on the Moon. We kept on saying that through the week in Trondheim.
Doctors stopped Aldrin from travelling to Trondheim from Florida, but he joined Harrison Schmitt and Charles Duke, both moonwalkers over 80 years old themselves, via a video link. Duke was the tenth man to walk on the Moon, and in December 1972 Schmitt – the twelfth moonwalker – was the only scientist to walk on the Moon.
The most obvious question to ask of this historic panel was: what’s next?
“In the long term, Mars is a clear objective for the humanity. Long term being this century probably,” said Schmitt. He was hopeful that the first Marswalker has already been born, but as a disclaimer he noted that he has said this for the last 50 years in public speeches.
Aldrin, who has written and talked a lot about going to Mars, forecasts seeing a commitment to conquer Mars in two years, on the 50th anniversary of first reaching the Moon, with a successful trip due in some 20 years. “I am more comfortable with two decades from July 2019: around 2040,” he said.
To make conquering Mars happen, the moonwalkers said it would take a continuing commitment from space-nations, starting with the United States.
“The future of space has got to be one of indefinite commitment. You should be indefinitely committed to human beings being in space,” said Schmitt.
“It’s going to take a commitment; it’s going to take leadership. And you can’t sit around and argue about who gets what portion of the mission. You’ve got to commit to milestones and move forward on that kind of commitment,” he told the audience.
Charles Duke agreed. “I think it takes leadership, and an organisation that is not risk averse, that wants to do this. There’s good research, good science for it, and I just like [that] the human spirit is to go explore,” he said.
“Nations have to decide that if they are going to be involved in space, they’re going to be involved forever and it’s an annual commitment of budgets. It’s not: let’s put 400 billion dollars into that. It’s an annual commitment. That’s what we’re going to do as human beings – we’re going to be active in space,” Duke said.
Aldrin suggested that in addition to partnerships and governments, some of the budgets could come from a channel unheard of in 1969.
“Look at repeating orbits between Earth and the Moon. It is not very satisfying to go to the Moon, but they [the orbits] are pretty damn good for tourism and adventure travel. And we are going to find that a lot of our financing is going to come from those sources, in addition to the partnerships,” Aldrin said.
If the commitment and money is found, there are still a number of challenges on the road. All three stressed the role the Moon could have in getting man (or woman) on Mars.
“We have to get two or three more generations of young people involved in this, learning how to deal with the risks of deep space, which are very different to the risks of near-Earth orbit. That’s why the Moon becomes so important. I think the Moon is clearly on the critical path for getting human beings to Mars and getting them there permanently,” said Schmitt.
Trips to the Moon had a safety net – spaceships travelled on the free return trajectory, which meant that if anything went wrong, the ship was coming back to Earth. There is no such safety net on a trip to Mars. If you fail to reach Mars velocity, you are not going to get there. “You’re lost. There is no rescue. That’s not very comforting,” said Aldrin.
Duke said the distance is such that the spacecraft becomes an autonomous vehicle in a way.
“You say ‘Hello Houston’ and Houston is not going to respond for 10 or 15 minutes. So you need systems, and confidence in your systems, that they are repairable and that they have a long duration,” said Duke.
Despite all the challenges, many of us could well see the conquering of Mars in our lifetime. Young, smart people can take on any challenge, the moonwalkers stressed.
“The average age of people working on the Apollo – those 450 thousand people – was in the twenties throughout the whole programme. They were young people, with stamina, and the courage, patriotism and motivation to make it all happen,” said Schmitt.