Almost a year after NASA’s final shuttle mission, consensus about the future direction of U.S. human spaceflight remains elusive.
Anybody who knows Buzz Aldrin would expect him to have well-developed opinions about the subject and a willingness to share them. But it might surprise some that Aldrin does not necessarily share the views of fellow Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, with whom he walked on the Moon nearly 43 years ago on the history-making Apollo 11 mission, and Eugene Cernan, the last man to accomplish that feat. Cernan and the usually reticent Armstrong have spoken out against U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Moon-bound Constellation program and outsourcing of crew transportation to and from the international space station.
For example, Aldrin applauded the recent delivery of cargo to the space station by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), a mission hailed by many as a vindication of the president’s commercialization strategy. His exploration vision, however, also carves out an important role for the Orion crew capsule, a vestige of Constellation that was mandated by lawmakers as a NASA-owned backup to commercial crew taxis but is widely viewed as a competitor for increasingly scarce funds.
Aldrin, who earned a doctorate of science in astronautics from the Massachusetts of Technology with a thesis on guidance for manned orbital rendezvous — he is credited with devising some of the rendezvous and docking techniques used on the Gemini and Apollo programs — spoke recently with Space News correspondent Leonard David.
During your astronaut career, you flew in both Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. What can you draw from those experiences to today?
There were some very good decisions made that led to the Apollo program. No. 1 was to have the Gemini program between Mercury and Apollo. We made step-by-step progress from a nonmaneuvering, one-person Mercury capsule to the very complex three-person Apollo. Gemini gave us needed experience in rendezvous and docking, space walking, long-duration spaceflight and computer guided re-entry.
Similarly, we need to make the steppingstones to Mars attractive to the public. That’s the way you sell a space program.
In that regard, what can be implemented now?
I believe that the Orion Block 1 spacecraft should be a crew test vehicle for aerocapture at the Earth or at Mars. Let’s reuse these spacecraft and not plop them into the ocean. Orion Block 1 should also serve as backup for commercial launch failure. But more importantly, Orion should pioneer aerocapture, first by demonstrating this key capability from lunar distance to low Earth orbit. Aerocapture is a steppingstone technology, one that is probably the most efficient, fuel-saving concept for exploration between Earth and Mars.
How do you assess the recent SpaceX success in providing logistics to the international space station?
My view is pretty straightforward. When the entrepreneurial muscle of the private sector is allied with NASA’s mission to explore, America wins. Success by SpaceX, along with the other commercial space launches that are still to come, adds up to the dawn of a new era in space exploration and underscores continued American leadership in space.
How can the space station play a role in exploration beyond low Earth orbit?
It is an absolutely essential test bed. Along with advancing life-support hardware, we need to use our station experience to prototype both a specialized crewed interplanetary habitat and a specialized crewed interplanetary taxi. Both are capable of aerocapture at the atmosphere of either Mars or Earth.
What do you see as the essential elements of a space exploration strategy for the United States?
I think exploration by itself is an incomplete specification of what a future vision should be. In my submission to the Augustine committee in 2009, I outlined a unified space vision, one that brings together five items: exploration, science, development, commercial and security — security meaning both national defense and defense of our planet from near-Earth objects.
How best to promote your vision?
I plan to expand it into what I would term a unified strategic space enterprise, or USSE. This would be a think tank to inform the public periodically on the definition and progress of a national space policy in those five areas I’ve cited. It would be nonpartisan and would limit the conflict of interest, not only from industry but from political influences too. USSE would disseminate information through reports to the American people.
My current thinking is that the USSE think tank could be formed under the auspices of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and headed by my former West Point classmate, David Abshire.
How does the Moon fit into your vision?
What nation has more experience at the Moon than the United States? We made a big investment in the 1960s and 1970s to gain that leadership. To just throw that away is silly.
But what we now need to do is establish a presence at the Earth-Moon L1 and L2 Lagrange points, footholds that allow the U.S. to robotically assemble, piece by piece, habitation at the lunar south pole.
America is expert in GPS navigation as well as deep-space tracking. I see the U.S. creating nonsurface lunar infrastructure — including a lunar orbiting GPS system, libration point relay satellites and fuel depots — services that can be bartered, enabling other nations — China, India, others — to land their robotic and human vehicles.
What do we barter for?
We barter for seats on their human landers. Space has always been an arena of bartering. Therefore, the U.S. contributions of infrastructure can be bartered for human passenger delivery to the surface of the Moon and back. We don’t want to invest government dollars in transporting U.S. personnel to the Moon.
Our resources must be spent on moving toward establishing human permanence on Mars. The skills gained in robotically piecing together a main research base on the Moon can be applied to assembling a permanent base on Mars — doing so from a manned mission control on Phobos, a moon of Mars, before any humans descend to the surface.
Of what value is sending humans to the red planet?
The U.S. president who openly commits the nation to permanent human presence on Mars will be enormously remembered throughout history, as will the initial settlers. I believe somewhere around 2020, every selected astronaut should commit to living out his or her life on the surface of Mars.
What was your opinion of former President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration outlined in early 2004 and the aftermath following the cancellation of the Constellation program?
I think it was a good concept to move away from the shuttle and the space station and back to exploration somewhere, but not necessarily the Moon. I did agree that Constellation required considerable re-evaluation.
Where did the interest go in establishing a National Space Council?
In running for election, Barack Obama made a campaign commitment to have a National Space Council. Now as the U.S. president, where is it? I feel very strongly that had we instituted some sort of a National Space Council we could have avoided the public perception of different individuals having canceled the space program.
Obama canceled Constellation. So why do we still have Ares 5 that morphed into the Space Launch System, an Ares 1 that’s now dubbed Liberty, and Orion that is ill-named as a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle?
It is because of short-term, vested interests in political and industrial circles.
Care to be more specific?
Of course I would. But I’ll reserve that for future op-ed pieces.