Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin has a modest proposal: scrap plans for a second lunar space race – this time with China – and focus on the grander goal of colonising Mars.
I had a splendid career at Nasa as an astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programmes. The capstone, of course, was my moonwalk on the Sea of Tranquility 40 years ago. I have only two regrets from my Nasa days, and both were my own fault: I failed to speak out when I saw bad decisions being made.
The first came in 1966, when Nasa, in a fit of excessive caution, cancelled the Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU), the Buck Rogers-style jet backpack I was scheduled to try out on Gemini 12. Despite difficulties with the AMU on Gemini 9, I was very confident I could make it work. But like a good astronaut, I kept my mouth shut, and I’ve regretted it ever since. As it turned out, it took 18 years for Nasa to develop another jet pack, the Manned Manoeuvring Unit, used on three space shuttle missions in 1984.
My second bout of wishy-washiness, however, had more far-reaching implications. In the early 1970s, I was part of a Nasa committee to establish the basic architecture of the space shuttle. One of the approaches we considered was a manned booster that would have its own pilot and glide back to the Cape after giving the orbiter its initial push. It was a silly idea – way too expensive. But I didn’t object strongly enough, and we wasted a year and millions of dollars on it.
That delay and expense eventually forced a hurried decision. Instead of the customary liquid-fuel boosters like the Atlas, Titan and Saturn, which had flawless track records on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights, the shuttle committee decided to go with cheaper solid-fuel boosters, which had never been used for manned spacefl ight. Solid-fuel rockets are lower in performance and can’t be shut off once ignited– and when something goes wrong, it tends to be catastrophic. Fifteen years after that decision, a solid-booster failure brought down Challenger, and the unhappy legacy of solid boosters lives on today in the underpowered, vibration-prone Ares I, the crew-launch rocket Nasa is developing. As I approach my 80th birthday, I’m in no mood to keep my mouth shut any longer when I see Nasa heading down the wrong path. And that’s exactly what I see today. The agency’s current Vision for Space Exploration will waste decades and hundreds of billions of dollars trying to reach the Moon by 2020 – a glorifi ed rehash of what we did 40 years ago. Instead of a stepping stone to Mars, Nasa’s current lunar plan is a detour. It will derail our Mars effort, siphoning off money and engineering talent for the next two decades. If we aspire to a long-term human presence on Mars – and I believe that should be our overarching goal for the foreseeable future – we must drastically change our focus.
Here’s my plan, which I call the Unified Space Vision. It’s a blueprint that will maintain US leadership in human spaceflight, avoid a counterproductive space race with China to be second back to the Moon, and lead to a permanent Americanled presence on Mars by 2035 at the latest. That date happens to be 66 years after Neil Armstrong and I first landed on the Moon– just as our landing was 66 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight
Nasa's looming short term dilemma is the five-year gap between the shuttle’s scheduled retirement next year and the debut of the Ares I rocket and the new Orion spacecraft, in 2015. During that hiatus, we’ll be writing cheques to the Russians to let our astronauts hitch rides on Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station, in which we’ve invested $100 billion. I find that simply unacceptable. Instead, we should stretch out the six remaining shuttle flights to 2015 – one per year. Sure, that will cost money, but we can more than make up for it by cancelling the troubled Ares I. In its place, we should use the old reliable Delta IV Heavy or the Atlas V satellite launchers, upgraded for human flight. (It won’t take much.) Then fast-track the Orion to fly on a Delta IV or Atlas V as soon as possible.
Nasa should also step up its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programme to subsidise private rockets such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, which could make its first flight any time now. SpaceX is also developing the Dragon capsule to fly seven astronauts to the space station.
In the short term, some combination of an extended shuttle schedule and a new Orion/Delta, Orion/Atlas or Dragon/ Falcon would fill the gap and give us the kind of continuity and flexibility we had during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes. In the meantime, we need to develop new strategies, new launch vehicles and new spacecraft for the years beyond 2015 to bring us to the threshold of Mars.
The key to my medium-term planis simple: scrap our go-it-alone lunar programme and let international partners – China, Europe, Russia, India, Japan – do the lion’s share of the planning, technical development and funding. Th e US would participate, and we would provide the technological leadership. By renouncing our goal of being first on the Moon (again), we would call off Space Race II with the Chinese and encourage them to channel their ambitious lunar efforts into the consortium.
We should also invite China to join the space station partnership. Its Shenzhou spacecraft could help transport cargo and US astronauts to the station. To encourage more partners for both the lunar programme and the space station, we should develop a manned spacecraft that other countries could afford to buy or lease.
A compact, reusable runway lander would have broad appeal: a sort of mini-shuttle that could carry eight astronauts and launch atop an Atlas V or a foreign-made booster such as the Japanese H-IIA or European Ariane 5. Such a space plane could be based on dormant Nasa concepts like the X-38 lifting-body space-station lifeboat or the HL-20 space taxi. Th e Air Force’s X-37B robot space plane, set for its fi rst orbital flight later this year, could serve as a starting point for a world shuttle.
We also need to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle to support flights to the Moon and beyond. Here is where I believe Nasa’s current thinking is seriously awry. After the Columbia disaster, the agency adopted the ill-advised policy that in future space programmes, crew and cargo would be launched on separate and different vehicles. This severely limits our launch options and flexibility. The upshot of that decision is our current mess: two expensive rocket programmes that have undergone numerous alterations. I’ve already mentioned the woes of the Ares I crew launcher; the gargantuan Ares V cargo lifter, scheduled to fly in 2018, keeps getting bigger and more expensive with every redesign.
The buzz plan
Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s Unified Space Vision is a blueprint for returning to the Moon and colonising Mars. Here are the primary objectives and key craft in this epic quest.
Extend shuttle Flights through 2015 until new Orion capsule can ride atop Delta IV or Atlas V rockets upgraded for human flight. Promote private-sector efforts in low Earth orbit such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.
Return to Moon with international consortium for commercial exploitation only. Develop runway lander based on robot X-37B and boosted by rockets such as Japan’s H-IIA.
Long term goals
Develop Exploration Module for manned flights of up to three years to comets, asteroids and Martian moon Phobos, where robots prep nearby Red Planet outpost for human settlement
My alternative plan is simple maths: Ares 3+3 is better than Ares 1+5. In other words, two medium-size Ares 3s would be a more efficient way to launch crew and cargo than a small crewonly Ares I and a huge cargo-only Ares V. Nasa would require just one much less expensive rocket programme.
This Ares 3 would use shuttle components to minimise development time and costs. Two well-studied concepts could serve as a starting point: the Jupiter Direct 232 shuttle-stack configuration developed by a group of moonlighting Nasa rebels, or the Shuttle-C side-mount cargo launcher that Nasa studied two decades ago. Ideally, this Ares 3 would slowly and affordably evolve to be fully reusable.
The international Moon programme, which I envision making a first manned landing around 2025, would eventually have to pay its own way. (We should know after a few landings whether there’s any commercial or practical potential.) Perhaps we’ll find ice to make liquid-oxygen rocket propellant, or the helium-3 that my fellow moonwalker Jack Schmitt believes can power future fusion reactors. Maybe a lunar solar-power station will prove feasible.
In those cases, we should maintain a robotic lunar surface presence with an occasional visit by a human “Maytag repairman”. If no commercial or mineral exploitation pans out, perhaps a few wealthy space tourists will pay $100 million for a lunar flyby. If not, kill the programme. Our purely exploratory efforts should aim higher than a place we’ve already set foot on six times.
To reach mars, we should use comets, asteroids and Mars’s moon, Phobos, as intermediate destinations. No giant leaps this time; more like a hop, skip and a jump. For these long-duration missions, we need an entirely new spacecraft that I call the Exploration Module, or XM. Unlike the Orion capsule, which is designed for short flights around the Earth and to the Moon, the XM would contain the radiation shields, artificial gravity and food-production and recycling facilities necessary for a spaceflight of up to three years. Once launched, it would remain in space. The XM would carry attached landers designed for Phobos or Mars and an Orion capsule for astronauts returning to Earth.
A prototype XM could be based on Nasa’s cancelled space station Habitation Module. It could be launched as early as 2014 and attached to the space station for a long-duration shakedown test. Extended flights around the Moon with second-generation XMs would serve as dry runs for its first real mission, in 2018: a one-year flight culminating in a 48 000 km/h flyby of the comet 46P/Wirtanen.
In 2019 and 2020, the asteroid 2001 GP2 will come within 16 million km of Earth, in position for a month-long rendezvous with the XM. In 2021, we could try a manned approach to 99942 Apophis, the asteroid that will just miss the Earth in 2029 and has a tiny chance of hitting us in 2036. If a 2036 impact looms, we could use this mission to divert the 250 m-wide rock.
The last step toward Mars, around 2025, would be a landing on the planet’s 27 km-wide moon, Phobos, which orbits less than 6 000 km above Mars. A Phobos base would be the perfect perch from which to monitor and control the robots that will build the infrastructure on the Martian surface, in preparation for the first human visitors.
In recent years, my philosophy on colonising Mars has evolved. I now believe that human visitors to the Red Planet should commit to staying there permanently. One-way tickets to Mars will make the missions technically easier and less expensive and get us there sooner. More importantly, they will ensure that our Martian outpost steadily grows as more homesteaders arrive.
Instead of explorers, one-way Mars travellers will be 21stcentury pilgrims, pioneering a new way of life. It will take a special kind of person. Instead of the traditional pilot/scientist/ engineer, Martian homesteaders will be selected more for their personalities – flexible, inventive and determined in the face of unpredictability. In short, survivors.
But, for this dream to happen, Nasa needs to dramatically change its ways. Its myopic Vision for Space Exploration will never get us to Mars. Progressive innovation and enlightened international co-operation will. President Obama and Congress need to set Nasa right – and soon. There, I’ve said it. No regrets this time.