39 years after he walked on the Moon Edwin Aldrin urges controlled emigration to Mars while confusing a Bulgarian for a Russian
The image of Buzz Aldrin stepping out onto a lunar landscape had the Communist Bloc community clenching their teeth, whilst his fellow Americans stood agape with glee. As the celebrity astronaut made his final checks before taking one giant leap for mankind on 20 July exactly 39 years ago, he poignantly whispered to Houston: “Beautiful! Beautiful! Magnificent desolation!" These contrasting emotions are now starkly familiar to the 78 year-old ex-Moon missioner. In the years since the assignment his moods have been capricious, due to fighting alcoholism and depression, yet his ideas remained characteristically zany. He holds nothing back as he animates his ideas on endorsing future space exploration.
Is the most astonishing thing about walking on the Moon the fact that we can't go back, as Arthur Clarke once famously put it?
Those who experienced that time period are privileged to be able to reminisce and see the potential opportunities that were missed. The Vietnam War and the countless political issues ended up drawing attention away from other perceivably mundane exploration activities. We felt discouraged. The support that we received during the earlier expeditions was gone. It's incredible that we did what we did, as rapidly as we did, but I understand the shortcomings of what we haven't done since then.
Richard Branson of Virgin will be soon have his $200,000 space excursions underway. Would you enrol?
Richard Branson is a good marketing man, and that is all. For all this money, you'd have a lacklustre journey after being launched into darkness, completely unable to see stars because the Sun would still be out. Actually, if you departed from Sweden you might be able to see the Northern lights, but that would be pointless.
You can't launch northwards and then try to look back.
The key point I want to get across to people is that by 20-30 years' time, we will have a habitable place in space, where everything has been built from scratch. Having said that, from personal experience the Moon is a sorry place to set up habitation, so that venue is out of the question. You can't ask taxpayers to support a budding bureaucracy on the surface of the Moon! That's not to say you don't learn things there. You have to adapt to working in hazardous conditions for several months, but you just get a rocket and you go and do it. For a real chance of finding another planet to live on, Mars would be a much better bet, but people would have to go there and adapt by themselves: to build and to live off the land. It's not economically viable to continue supplying these Mars residents by sending supplies like food, fuel and oxygen. The Earth wouldn't send 60 people to Mars in one go and an initial lot of six people would be too few to begin the self-sufficiency. Therefore the plan would be to organise the emigration in stages. That would mean that if everybody who goes there, stays there, then it would take about 20-30 years to accumulate the 60 inhabitants needed for the community to really flourish. What we really need to do is send somebody to Mars, then bring them back after five or six years so that they can write their memoirs and educate the rest of the world. Finding around 100 people who would want to go and spend the rest of their lives on Mars would be a piece of cake.
I'm just striving to encourage people to get excited about a second habitation for humans. It would be an excellent way to gain evidence of extraterrestrial life there or nearby.
Do you still keep in touch with the Russian “cosmonauts” from the 1960s?
We always have a massive celebration on Yuri's night, didn't you, as a Russian, know that?
I am Bulgarian.
Oh, sorry. In America we decided that the first human to make an orbit should be cause for celebration. Do the Russians have a big celebration for Alan Shepard, the first American in space? Or for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth? I don't think so. But the United States celebrates Yuri Gagarin. America's space program needs to be paid for by American taxpayers; it's up to them to be supportive. Our method isn't to take government money and make it disappear randomly. It's money that should be spent purely by the enthusiasm of the people, on what they want to see.
Out of all the 1960s astronauts, you are by far the most enthusiastic. What keeps you going?
I have had an interesting life with highs and lows. I did plummet into depression and alcoholism, but now I've returned to being very progressive about what we should be doing in the future. A lot of my brainwaves are an attempt to generate interest in cosmos voyaging, which I've coined, “sharing space”. I established a foundation called just that; you can see it at www.sharespace.org. The very experts who have observed and undertaken explorations in the past share their experiences there.
In the United States, it was six years after the last Apollo flight in 1975 before we flew in a Shuttle. That's inexcusable. After that the Challenger and Columbia crashes followed. Now we're facing an unwarrantable five years where we haven't sent our own people in space. I'm constantly striving to get something better. Not just to fly a shuttle a little longer or pour more money into the Moon-bound Orion. What's needed is a knockout mission to honour the Americans who pay for these shuttles. Bringing them back and landing them in the ocean with a capsule is neither impressive nor marketable. I think we need the other countries to share the development of very a capable common spacecraft. To surmise, I'm trying to offer international cooperation. Whereas we've had that with the international space station, we can't keep putting our money into that one thing when ultimately we're trying to go somewhere else further a field, to the red planet, Mars.