Buzz Aldrin really, really wants us to go to Mars. Earlier this year, he outlined his proposal to get there by 2039, but not just brief missions like his own Apollo 11 - he wants us to colonize it, and create permanent settlements there, he explained in an exclusive interview with IFLScience.
He is not alone in his ambition. Just last week, NASA unveiled their own plan to get humans to Mars, on the back of significant publicity from the recent movie The Martian. But Aldrin has been an outspoken proponent of missions to Mars for decades, almost since he returned from the Moon in July 1969 – and now, at the age of 85, he wants to inspire the next generations to reach for the Red Planet when he is no longer around.
To galvanize the children of today who might make this possible, he has released a new book called “Welcome to Mars,” published by National Geographic Kids and co-written with author Marianne J. Dyson. It is essentially a guide to getting to and living on the Red Planet. Aldrin himself has several grandchildren – and he hopes they might one day be involved in a future mission to Mars.
“We will colonize Mars,” Aldrin told IFLScience, confidently. “I wrote this book, Welcome to Mars, to inspire the young people, because they will be the ones who will carry out these missions to Mars, perhaps participating in them. Maybe they’ll become a violinist, a lawyer, an engineer, or a fighter pilot if they’re lucky. Or maybe they’ll become a crew member trained by world resources, billions and billions of dollars, to go into the preparation of human beings to be selected and trained, hopefully willing to commit themselves to be pioneers, to be settlers [on Mars].”
Aldrin sees Mars as the logical next step to advancing America’s influence in space. “We have to rethink the requirements for being great in space, as a nation,” he said, “that will give America a further lasting heritage legacy in history books. And I want to be part of the planning for it.” He noted, though, that he hopes it is an international endeavor that includes nations such as China.
A manned mission to Mars by the end of the 2030s is feasible, Aldrin has said previously. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
Aldrin’s plan calls for a “cycler” spacecraft to remain in orbit between Earth and Mars, with people using this habitat to make the trip to and from the Red Planet. They will join crews living on the surface of Mars, the first permanent settlers there, to provide humanity with another outpost to live on. “How many planets do we have? How many planets even come close to being habitable like Earth in our Solar System? The choice is ours,” said Aldrin.
He admits, though, that the idea of sending people to live out the rest of their lives on Mars might not sit well with some members of the public. “That’s not what a lot of people think the future ought to be, that the U.S. government should not commit to one-way trips,” he said.
“‘The U.S. government will never agree to send people to die on Mars,’ they say. "Well, come on. Think of history. Think of the opportunities that exist for young people in the future to become historic pioneers. Pilgrims on the Mayflower didn’t make it around Plymouth Rock for the return trip, they came here to settle America. And a lot of them lost their lives, but they pioneered what we have today. And as a military man among many, I pioneered the things that have kept our nation vibrant and alive, and optimistic. We need to instill optimism and excitement, for our children.”
Aside from the romantic idea of having humans living on another planet, one key benefit of a mission to Mars is the amount of science that could be performed. With the recent discovery that liquid water is still present on the surface today, albeit with some issues regarding actually visiting those locations due to the risk of contamination, settlers could greatly advance our understanding of Mars, far more than has been possible so far – and not just by going down to the surface themselves, but by controlling rovers on the ground in real-time from orbit.
“Right now the time delay of controlling [robots] on the surface is maybe 20 minutes one way,” said Aldrin. “So we send instructions one day ahead, conservative instructions. A program manager of many, many rovers said that, what rovers [like Spirit and Opportunity] did in five years could have been done in one week if we had human intelligence orbiting Mars giving them instructions with less than a second time-delay.”
In July 1969, Aldrin (pictured) and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the Moon. NASA.
But while Mars has been receiving an enormous amount of attention recently, some have bemoaned the lack of missions to other destinations – including Europa, which is thought to harbor a vast ocean beneath its surface containing more water than is on Earth. “But are we gonna send scuba divers there so we can dig a hole in a couple of miles of ice and see what’s underneath?” said Aldrin.
“There may be indications of life… it’d be nice to know that,” he continued. “But it isn’t essential. It shouldn’t be done at the expense of inspiring what is in front of us to do, that can return unimaginable benefits in terms of historic achievements that’ll be remembered hundreds of years into the future. The legacy of the president who makes the commitment [to go to Mars] will be far beyond his term. He doesn’t have to be around, his name will still be around, it’ll have the legacy for thousands of years, more than Queen Isabella, more than Columbus.” Indeed, JFK is still remembered more than 50 years on for delivering his powerful speech at Rice University in 1961 that committed the U.S. to landing on the Moon.
As to whether Aldrin himself would have liked to have gone to Mars, he said his time has passed, although he would like to see virtual reality on Mars in the future so that everyone could experience it. “I’ve been looking at some [virtual reality devices] recently, and man, it looks like you’re there,” he said. “But will I be an outdoorsman, a boy scout on Mars? No, I’m an innovator, a creative guy. And besides, I won’t be alive when all that happens. But my great grandsons might be.”
First image in text: Cover of Welcome to Mars, on sale now. National Geographic.
Second image in text: Buzz Aldrin's Get Your Ass to Mars campaign is raising funds to promote space education for kids.