As America prepares to make history in space – returning humans to the moon, then opening a human pathway to Mars, possibly triggering human migration, voices from the past are speaking and should be heard. One such voice is that of Buzz Aldrin. His thoughts on the subject are worthy and perhaps even profound.
Many still recall July 20, 1969, the epic day on which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped from a spider-like lunar module onto the moon. They left human footprints in lunar dust and weighty imprints on the human mind and soul. They collected samples, set up experiments, and planted the American flag.
What many may not recall are some of the big lead-up decisions, including whether to employ only one rocket or attempt lunar rendezvous, sending a smaller lunar module to the surface. That decision, which proved essential to success – and was not Wernher von Braun’s initially preferred option – but was pushed by a brilliant, persistent aerospace engineer named John Houbolt.
Houbolt felt the math, physics and orbital science supported lunar rendezvous. So did a future astronaut, then completing his PhD at MIT, not coincidentally on orbital rendezvous. That future astronaut’s name was Buzz Aldrin.
In short, Aldrin felt rendezvous of two spacecraft in space was feasible and could be done at moon distance. If that proved true, only one big rocket would be needed, not two. Moreover, the process could be tested in earth orbit, for final use around the moon. Houbolt insistently tried to convince NASA.
By June 1961, Houbolt – who risked his career to win the ear of von Braun and others at NASA – had prevailed. In one of those ironies that seems utterly improbable for those who believe in coincidence, Buzz Aldrin would end up testing spacecraft rendezvous in Gemini 12 and making the first moon landing in Apollo 11, which relied entirely on lunar rendezvous.
The point here is prescience. Aldrin was right to support Houbolt, just as he was right later to advocate neutral buoyancy and other space training techniques. When being right is even acknowledged, it is often only in the moment, and then forgotten. In this case it certainly should not be.
Proof of that essential point is evident here. Recalling these facts, shouldn’t voices like Aldrin’s be in the room again, as we think about America’s next human steps into deeper space?
In short, what people like Houbolt and Aldrin did was think “outside the box,” for the benefit of the program. Like other Apollo astronauts, Aldrin was good with numbers. Like others, he risked all for America. He is still speaking – and it is those words we might do well to hear now.
In 2019, he did interviews that give us pause to think. Several related to pace of progress. He thinks we need to pick it up, as momentum built for human space exploration can get lost. America is the leader and must stay there – exploring Moon and Mars. On that point, he remains passionate.
How, when, and with what operational tempo, he includes in his opinions. Most of his ideas seem to sync well with Trump Administration planning. That is, they are engineering-based, not political. For example, he warns that “giant leaps” come with risk but need to be taken. He argues that permanent presence on the moon and Mars is more cost effective than sending people out and bringing them home to “write books and give speeches.” Aldrin, still a wit, knows how to apply irony.
Likewise, he believes once humans arrive at Mars, subsequent interplanetary missions should be conceived of as regular, migratory, and (importantly) more systematic than exceptional. He seems to see future interplanetary expeditions in the light of historic intercontinental settlement, not “once and done” events.
There is logic – as well as ample math – to support his notion of establishing regular, cycling - rolling and returning - Mars missions and moon visits. He asserts that there will be plenty of volunteers, and in this he seems again to be right. One motivation, he reminds audiences, is that we remember “The Pilgrims,” and other immigrants whose faith and daring compelled them to seek, persevere, and succeed, not those who gave up.
Additionally, in articles and speeches, he often addresses technical challenges; he does not ignore them. On the other hand, he sees them as “on an order” not dissimilar to ones America faced – in a different time – getting to the moon first.
Aldrin dares to speak his mind, which pleases some and upsets others. However, he reminds us that daring, risk, and creativity are always part of lasting human achievement. With them we advance. Without them we stagnate.
In recent years, he has pressed NASA under succeeding administrations – as have some of his Apollo colleagues, including Armstrong, Collins, Cernan and Cunningham – to lean forward more fully, not rest on past successes.
Aldrin has also openly questioned conventional wisdom, as he did with lunar rendezvous and neutral buoyancy training. He has wondered aloud if the goal of some commercial enterprises is truly human space exploration, or just making things government will buy. He has questioned whether Congress seeks American leadership in space or just jobs on Earth.
In asking such questions, he is unique – since he is neither personal nor political, but innately honest, willing to risk criticism to spur action. His basic point: America once led human space exploration. We have it in us to lead. We should be leading. Are we committed to leading?
On the technical side, he is also painfully honest. He has offered arguments for increased international cooperation, at times when that seems less than popular. He has asked whether portions of America’s space architecture are necessary, cost-effective, efficient or likely to promote permanence.
Aldrin has dared ask for increased public-private cooperation, an international coalition to encourage launch and space-bases synergies, conversations with China, Russia, and others, and fresh focus on budgets, schedules, and safety.
If this sounds like enthusiasm from a space pioneer, it probably is. His speeches and 2019 State of the Union appearance were inspiring. He is part of a select group who dreamed about space travel, then did it.
Aldrin is iconic for countless reasons. One too much overlooked is this: His remarkable record for productive “out of the box” thinking. He may or may not be entirely right about the pace, progress, trade-offs, timing, techniques, efficiencies, motivations and what is possible. But he has been right before. America was built on daring – and it is time to dare again in space. People like Aldrin have shown us how. It’s time to press on.
John C. Mosbey, a retired USAF colonel, writes nationally on defense, space policy and geopolitical issues; he holds advanced degrees from Alabama, the Naval War College, and Trinity College, Dublin.