““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
These days, Buzz Aldrin zips around on a JetSuite Embraer Phenom 100 instead of a NASA spaceship. While he is helping JetSuite promote its regional light jet charter service, he also finds that VLJs offer a convenient way to travel to speaking engagements and for space research projects and vacations.
Aldrin has come a long way since 1969, when he set foot on the lunar surface just moments after Neil Armstrong. Sadly, however, the enormous risks of that mission and the subsequent Apollo moon flights did little to advance mankind’s hoped-for steps to the stars, and this rankles Aldrin, who has devoted recent years to promoting more regular and human-centered space activities.
At age 82, the former astronaut has no shortage of ideas on what the U.S. could be doing now in space, including a concept for a shuttle service between Earth and Mars that would greatly shorten the travel time. He talked with us about this proposal when we met in his Southern California office, and also about his historic trip to the moon, his battles with depression and alcoholism and a scheme that could put someone into suborbital flight for $100.
You’ve seen technology in aviation change a lot, not just in space.
The last Phenom 100 I flew had a magnificent display of navigation, all the data you’d ever want. It would talk to you–told you everything to do, almost.
Are you amazed at how much power is in your iPhone compared with the computers in Apollo 11?
I don’t want anyone to shortchange the program that allowed us to do the things as magnificently as we were able to. I like to emphasize that the autopilot on Apollo 11 was not as stable [as usual] in the final phases of touchdown. It left more up to the pilot, whereas on all the rest of the landings, if you just let go of the control stick, [the autopilot] would bring you to a stop.
Do you travel often on business jets?
Where it is appropriate I think it makes sense for me to use [JetSuite Phenom 100s] and to help promote their services. We also go to and from Sun Valley [via private jet]. Sometimes we ride with somebody.
In your book Magnificent Desolation, you wrote about battling alcoholism and depression. Was that a hard admission?
I really didn’t think I had too much choice in the matter. I felt I needed to explain something in my own terms rather than have it filter out in the...press. And as a result of the treatment for depression, I became chairman of the National Mental Health Association.
Did talking about depression help other people?
I wasn’t doing that for very long because I was in treatment for alcoholism, but I think 32 years of sobriety has given me a whole new life of opportunity, challenges and insight that I never would have had if I hadn’t had to go through that recovery. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
What was it like when you stepped onto the moon?
It was certainly a freedom of movement that was different, even with the spacesuit on. I [first] experienced that by training underwater–the first astronaut to do that–and then by having a quite successful series of spacewalks at the end of the two-man Gemini program that allowed us to confidently go ahead with Apollo.
What are your thoughts as we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11?
Everything started from May 25, 1961, with Kennedy charting a course for the moon. After Yuri Gagarin flew one orbit, Alan Shepherd less than a month later just ran up and down. We hadn’t even been in orbit and we said we’re going to go to the moon before the end of the decade. And it organized us so well and inspired us.
I think [we need] a global doctrine that spells out our interests in outer space, specifically assisting other nations to do unified things–security, science, exploration, development and commercial. There’s a very important follow-on speech that President Kennedy made on Sept. 12, 1962. That’s when he said, “We choose to go to the moon [in this decade] and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
What is your idea for advancing human space flight?
I’ve been evolving ideas of what we should be doing for 10 years plus. I was encouraged to look at Mars in ’84 and ’85 and developed what is known as the Mars cycler. There are ways of getting people from Earth to Mars in relatively short times. The cycler itself can grow in size and since it doesn’t make major maneuvers, it swings by with navigation corrections and can house the sustenance, the living conditions, the resistance to radiation [exposure] and artificial gravity for body conditioning. That might be cumbersome for transit devices that had to use fuel to start and stop.
Would this be a one-way trip?
The cycler is a settling spacecraft. We don’t call the Pilgrims who came on the Mayflower people who left on a one-way trip from Europe. They didn’t hang around Plymouth Rock. They settled. To call that a one-way trip is inappropriate.
Would you like to go?
No. The people who go will be settlers–colonists. They’ll be committed to serving the rest of their life on Mars and they’ll be trained and highly motivated to do that. They will be historical in the annals of human existence, being the first human creatures to begin settlement on another object.
You talk about commercial businesses moving us forward in the space arena. But so few entrepreneurial space companies have been started.
Not that many nations have been able to put things into Earth orbit. It takes a good bit of time and quite careful testing to get the reliability and the excellence into the rockets, and the trustworthiness to be able to put humans into the rockets.
Will suborbital passenger flights ever take off?
That’s $200,000. Not that many people can afford that. Why don’t we have a lottery? I think people who understand the freedom of flying understand the exhilaration, the adventure of being able to go into space. Many of them would enjoy an opportunity for a modest investment of, say, $100 [for a chance] to win a non-transferable prize that could include a suborbital flight.
Are you encouraged by Elon Musk’s SpaceX?
It is a significant step to potentially reducing the cost and maybe the time to develop rockets. I think it’s a little early to proclaim success.
So government will play a major role in future space activity?
If you want to keep building government-funded spacecraft to [enter] low Earth orbit, that’s not advancing. NASA has become a jobs program, distributing jobs around the country to get political support. There is a generation of “what’s in it for me right now?” Instead of “ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for the country.”
We need some leadership...
It is always a question of leadership. The executive branch [needs] to identify the space policies that we want. And it’s up to Congress to be more future-sighted. But Congress is fighting the terminating of programs that were too expensive and not going in the right direction.
NAME: Born Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr. Officially adopted Buzz as his first name in 1988.
BIRTHDATE: Jan. 20, 1930
OCCUPATION: Retired Gemini and Apollo astronaut
TRANSPORTATION: Various private lift, including JetSuite Phenom 100s. Also flies commercially.
PERSONAL: Lives in Southern California with third wife, Lois Driggs Cannon. Has three children from first marriage.
TRIVIA: The Buzz Lightyear character in the Toy Story franchise is named after Aldrin. And speaking of names, Aldrin’s mother’s was Marion Moon.