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Before you evaluate the reality of Buzz Aldrin in the flesh and sitting across the table from you, you have to think about who he is. Who he -- for as long, certainly, as I can remember -- has always been. He is, before anything else, one of the select. One of the few. One of a handful of people -- perhaps a dozen, at most -- on this celestial body who, to our knowledge, has set foot on another. On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin became the second man to walk on the moon, following crew mate Neil Armstrong by less than half an hour.
Needless to say, with this buildup of a lifetime, I had expectations. I expected, I don't know, someone with a vast and sophisticated understanding of human nature. A watcher. A listener. Aldrin is now 70, so I expected wisdom in large quantities. Most of all, I guess I expected fun. Silly, right? But I expected someone who has seen the world from an impossible angle and has come back to walk among us confident of how humorous it all is. Someone who has earned the right to laugh at humanity and know that we'll laugh back.
OK: so I was wrong. A PR machine for longer than most people have been on Earth, Aldrin seems to have lost the ability for casual-yet-meaningful conversation. As we speak, I have the sense that he doesn't see me at all. The "me" that he does see is a necessary evil: someone else to talk to because the Message must be conveyed and I will be the Messenger. This hour. So he endures me as he's endured hundreds -- perhaps thousands? -- of journalists before me.
If he endures me with patience, he also endures me with caution: the defensiveness with which he answers the most innocent of my questions puts me on the alert. Aldrin tells me that, "all the ideas that I have fit a pattern of progress and they need to stand the test of being questioned so I need to take a defending position and a justifying position when somebody is curious about what I'm talking about."
And now, with co-author John Barnes, Aldrin has written a book. Sort of. "He does the physical writing," says Aldrin. "Then I do the reviewing, correcting, but we sit down and do an awful lot of figuring out what the structure is going to be. Who is going to do what to whom and how's it going to come about."
The vision, however, is clearly Aldrin's. The Return is not science fiction, something that's apparent on reading the book. But Aldrin also stresses that, "I never did like the term 'science fiction.' I like 'technology projection.'" Even so, The Return is not so much projection as it is a fictional implementation. And even that is only the most thinly veiled space propaganda ever conceived. Aldrin's personal vision is of cleanly implemented space buses ferrying people from Earth to the moon and on to Mars, then back again. "I mean," Aldrin says, "what better payload could you possibly have than putting people in space?"
In The Return, four very level and decent people with space dreams and backgrounds -- think white bread and apple pie -- get involved in an Earthbound space adventure laced with technological marvels that Aldrin insists are even now ready to go, if only the money to fund it all can be found. In fact, the division between fiction and fact is so thin in The Return that it's sometimes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.
That, Aldrin insists, is all part of his master plan. "That's why I wrote the book. To try to get to at least a couple of hundred thousand people." And, from Aldrin's perspective, the more people that understand the challenge he's undertaken, the more will be ready to sign up to go to space and the more -- and this is the important part -- that will put pressure on their elected officials to see that it all happens.
Whatever side of the fence you happen to sit on with regards to propaganda masquerading as fiction, award-winning science fiction author John Barnes -- with the aid of Aldrin's indisputable space expertise -- pulls it off. Barnes is the author of the highly acclaimed Mother of Storms as well as A Million Open Doors, Finity and other well-reviewed works. But while it may well be Barnes' words and careful plotting, it's clearly Aldrin's vision of a space traveling future that we're being sold. And maybe it's time to bring that old chestnut out again, anyway.
Now 70, Aldrin shares his Los Angeles home with his wife Lois and a couple of cats. Aldrin says they travel quite a bit. One can't help but wonder if Mars is anywhere in their future travel plans.
Linda Richards: The book is very interesting. And I really got the excitement that you're trying to share with people.
Buzz Aldrin: Well, I'm excited, but excitement doesn't last very long with people. It may result in a sense of better understanding, maybe. Of what's going on and what can happen and so forth. Obviously, excitement doesn't last. People were excited when we landed on the moon. You go to the moon again and they're not so excited. So you need to generate a commitment -- an ongoing movement -- that makes something happen. You need to do that by having a business that has a profit in mind that's going to make that happen.
The [American] government has one business in mind: spend money. That's what they do. And they usually spend it in the direction that serves some of the people: like the politicians. They spend it to buy votes. And that's what happens quite a bit. So they get kind of bogged down as far as the purpose and the purpose was to have a space program fly in space. But the purpose a lot of times becomes jobs: Can I get enough jobs in the different districts? Can I get high technology? And you go and justify it by saying: Look at all the good things the space program is doing for you. It's doing all this stuff. It's not going anywhere, but...
You haven't lost the excitement though?
Well, it has been lost several times, but it comes back. When I feel I have a crucial opportunity to take advantage of things that are gathering some momentum.
Do you think people could become interested in the space program again?
If they get something out of it. I try to give them the excitement of participating themselves.
It looked like you were having so much fun in space, even though it was no doubt hard work. It looked like a real adventure.
I'm sure that basketball players have a lot of fun too.
But did you have fun? Was it fun?
I wouldn't say it's the pursuit of fun. It's the pursuit of a career, of achievement, of service, of challenge.
You know though, I have a sense sometimes in my own work -- having been a writer my whole life and loving to talk to people, interview people and share their thoughts with a readership -- there are times -- like this -- when I'm sitting here with someone really special who has, perhaps, written a wonderful book. And I think: Yeah! This is what I dreamed about. This is what I wanted. And I think in a capsule, far away from Earth, you must have had that feeling, sometimes. That this is the thing that I worked towards, or...
Well, maybe you don't have to be way away. Maybe if the culmination of what you're doing is that you're selected and you're a part of this group and then you're selected to fly and now the day is here and now you're going to go do that. Now you've reached that point, you don't have to be far away. You've reached what you've sought after.
How do you see yourself now? As a writer, or as a...
As a catalyst for exciting movement in the future.
How do you want to see the space program progress?
By four year political periods. Setting primary and secondary objectives that lead toward an evolutionary increase in capabilities. Reusable first stage, reusable orbiter stage. Then make those a little bit bigger...
Just as you described in the book.
Perfectly. Yeah. Except it's become a bit more precise as to how it leads then to the place where people are going to stay and how many of them and where they're going to be and how they become the enabling port facility that lets people go from Earth to the moon and how those port facilities become cycling space ships between Earth and Mars. It all fits into a pattern so that I can show people exactly how the building of this leads to the building of this and the building of this and those capabilities lead to people on Mars by 2020 in a way that gets lots of people in space starting in 2012. But, you've got to make a decision. You've got to take that first step. If you don't, everything else slides down the road.
So the book has a mandate then? The book has purpose. Was it a story you wanted to tell or was it a sort of grass roots message?
No. I wanted it to maybe put the journalist in space before the election. It's probably not going to happen now.
You mean in real life?
Yes! Real life.
But they blend. Fact and fiction blend in this book.
That's reality projected into the future.
But I'm assuming that most of [the science] stuff you talked about in the book is viable.
It's not science fiction. It's science fact.
No, it hasn't happened. If it happened, it's fact. If it's maybe going to happen then it's fiction. But I never did like the term "science fiction." I like "technology projection." That's what I tried to do in the previous story [an earlier book, Encounter With Tiber] is take technology I know about and project it to going close to the speed of light. Taking a society. Creating a place where they came from. A real place. A place that could exist. The solar system that we created at Alpha Centauri could really exist. It could support life. It probably doesn't exist, but it hasn't been disproven yet.
You worked with the same co-author, John Barnes, on that book?
Do you both do some of the physical writing?
No. He does the physical writing. Then I do the reviewing, correcting, but we sit down and do an awful lot of figuring out what the structure is going to be. Who is going to do what to whom and how's it going to come about.
It must be a good partnership: you've done two books.
Are you working on another one?
Naw: I'm kind of busy implementing and getting both of [the books made] into movies and doing the ShareSpace business of getting three and a half million dollars to do a study that will prove that putting people into space contributes significantly [by getting] people back to the moon and [then on to] Mars and that all of these things are doable. And not only that, but they're doable in a certain progression and that progression coincidentally happens to be what the other side of what I'm doing says we ought to do, which is Starcraft Boosters, which produces reuseable Starcraft Starbirds and all of the rest of the things. But that's just the beginning. See, what you revert to there is the medium reusable first stage and the re-useable orbiter stage. But it's the very early parts of it that are used in an emergency to handle a situation.
So from the science viewpoint, the stuff you describe in the book is all going on.
Well, I think that's what Tom Clancy tries to project. He might describe something that happened in the past, like Red October, but he also describes situations that may happen in the future. But he puts in a lot of techno-thriller adventure. We tried to deal with characters that are a little more human in situations that it doesn't take much for things to get out of hand in conditions of marginal stability.
You mentioned three and a half million dollars that you're trying to raise for the study?
No. I'm not trying to raise it. I'm trying to get it out of Congress. To [get Congress to] allot money so we can gather in the resources to get the study done in a six-to-nine month period that'll verify the things we've said it would.
As the book opens [the character] Scott Blackstone works for an organization called ShareSpace Foundation. Is that the same ShareSpace that you've been the Chair of?
Precisely. The phone call he gets to ask him to take it over comes from the real me.
I thought that was a fictional organization.
No. In fact, if you go to my Web site, you'll see it refers to ShareSpace Foundation. That's why I wrote the book. To try to get to at least a couple of hundred thousand people. Whether they read the book or buy the book, at least they'll have heard about it.
What do you think the ultimate catalyst for change will be to get more people back into space?
Well, we need some policy changes at the high level of government. To recognize that taking private citizens into space will lead to very beneficial things for the nation. And that the nuisance that it causes the government bureaucrats should be accepted because much better things are going to come out of it other than the nuisance of carrying a journalist to space and putting up with all that stuff. They don't want to do that. See, NASA doesn't want to be bothered doing the things that they're set out to do. And if somebody comes along and rocks the boat they'll say: Oh, that's going to affect safety. We can't affect safety. We've got to do things the very safest [way] possible. They're protecting their turf.
So they're not concerned about PR. They're concerned about their research?
Well, in a way. The US government has rules about taxpayer money financing government activities. PR-ing. Promoting their image. It's against the law. And they take that to great lengths. Now, the military services recruit and they promote the services and they try to get people to enlist and that's an accepted thing to do be because it's part of recruiting. It should be part of education to talk about what NASA does and inform the people. I try to come up with things that describe that. Like the government, in the 1800s, established the Homestead Act. If you go out and live on this land for a while it's yours. They gave away land. That cost the government. The government gave that to the people. Why? To get them to move West, so we could develop the nation. And they said: How are we going to get there? So they subsidized the railroads to help this come along. That's government creating an industry.
The government subsidized the Air Mail. Because the barnstormers were going around there, taking people for rides and killing them left and right: they were very undisciplined. So what came out of that? The airlines. The government regulates the airlines and now they deregulate them. The government helped the partnership with communication with AT&T and others for Comsat, to get communications satellites up there and now look at what we've got. All we have is missile technology throwing away rockets every time. It's expensive as hell, they're not reliable.
What will make a difference? High volume traffic. So we study what possibly could we put into space that would cause you to launch quite frequently with large payloads. Not satellites: they're getting smaller. There's not enough of them. They're expensive. Water? That's not going to help. Nuclear waste? Sure. We want to get rid of it all, but we don't have safe rockets to launch that stuff yet. It might fail.
And where are we going to put it, because we've already got all that space junk up there already?
No: once it got up there, we'd figure a place where it would go. The sun or way away. But that's not acceptable. The only other thing that studies have come up with is people. People: there are lots of them. And they're getting bigger, they're not getting smaller. And they'll pay for the opportunity of doing that. I mean, what better payload could you possibly have than putting people in space? So, the government should subsidize that so that we have high traffic, we get more reliable spacecraft, we get more of them. We get cheaper ones to be able to go back to the moon and [on to] Mars. We get all of the working tools we need out of a government recognition that by taking people into space -- being a catalyst for tourism in space -- will bring the nation great benefits.
Government or governments? Because there's a push to do this internationally, right? Or is that too messy?
It's very messy. You've got to have leadership. If you just say: All right, governments of the world, let's have a meeting. Come and decide how we're going to do [space] tourism. We're going to be arguing about how to rearrange the chairs. You've got to have leadership. You've got to have somebody out there doing it.
Do you think there might be life on other planets?
Somewhere, probably. Intelligent life? There's a big difference between just life: look at all the creatures. The ants, the caterpillars, the cockroaches, the fish. They're not very smart. They can't rub sticks together. They don't create wheels. They don't melt stuff out of the ground.
And I guess everyone expects you to have insight into questions like that because you've been there. Been in space.
Yeah. And I do, because I have to answer them. So I polish the answers. Whether they're better answers, I don't know.
When I watched Apollo 13 [the film] I was so shocked. It seemed like they were sending those poor guys out into space in a 67 Chevy. It was frightening. That huge computer, so large and so underpowered by today's standards. And a craft that was built by different factions who didn't get the CO2 scrubbing system the same in both crafts. So they had to jury-rig something...
Both manufacturers had damned good engineering reasons why one designed one way and the other designed it another! There was never any government requirement that they be interchangeable. If those guys were selling those things in large quantities to the world they'd have made them the same. So that's the difference between what the private sector will do and what the government will do.
They didn't foresee that kind of problem happening, I guess.
Well, [laughs] NASA hired the best engineers they possibly could and said: What can go wrong? I want you guys to spend all the time, night and day for years figuring out what can go wrong. We will build realistic simulations of the real mission and we will throw those errors in and we'll see how the real guys... nothing like that had ever been done with such a degree of accuracy and finesse. And so thoroughly. In anything that humans had ever done before, I might add, since. And don't belittle our computer! We had a digital autopilot, we did maneuvers to a hundredth of a foot per second.
It's interesting to me that, from your manner -- because I haven't been arguing with you. I've been really enthusiastic about your book and about your work and stuff -- but your manner is a little defensive. I guess maybe you're used to defending some of these things in a way that I'm not aware of. Do you get a lot of opposition from certain factions that say...
Well, yeah. We get callers in that say: Why are you spending all this money? Why aren't you cleaning up the streets? And I say we could spend every dollar we have cleaning up the streets and they'd still be dirty.
So you must get a lot of resistance to going back to space. People will say...
Well, all the ideas that I have fit a pattern of progress and they need to stand the test of being questioned so I need to take a defending position and a justifying position when somebody is curious about what I'm talking about.
But you don't always have to be defending. I wasn't actually attacking.
I understand you had a doctorate from MIT before you entered the space program.
That's what got me there, really.
What's your doctorate in?
Astronautics. Astronautics is traveling in the astro and it implies people -- or machines or robots and communication. Like aeronautics, it's nautical in the air.
How did you get into astronautics and flying in space. What brought you to that?
Because I was a fighter pilot [in Korea] and to enhance my professional career I went to MIT because the Air Force offered two year master's programs. My father had received a doctor's degree from MIT many years earlier and it enhanced his career and I'm sure the air corps paid for a good bit of it. So I got there and I decided: now, what can I study? There are new fields of doing things in space. People have been looking at doing things in the air. What can I take with my background and what they have to offer here and make something useful to me being of service within 15 years? I knew how to fly airplanes and do things manually as a director, as a pilot, as an involved controller. What can the space environment do? What do they need?
About that time there was talk about going to the moon, but I couldn't see where my becoming an expert in landing on the moon was going to help the Air Force very much. I couldn't see the justification for doing that for the military. Reentry of space craft can be done by piloting mechanisms. It can also be done by remote controls or automatic systems. A lot of people were working on that. It's kind of a messy business and you've got to understand a lot of changes in temperature, pressure and gas dynamics and all those conditions. But it was a good subject. We needed to have manual control observing of how you reenter to land somewhere. But then I decided I know how to intercept airplanes in the air, how about intercepting other craft in space? In orbit, for rendezvous. So I wrote my thesis on rendezvous.
Not docking. Docking is the terminal part. It's putting it in the garage. It's finding the damn house from a city that's 500 miles away. That's rendezvous. Putting it in the garage is docking.
Anyway, I'm still doing that except now it's objects orbiting around the sun that can swing by the Earth and have their orbit around the sun changed by the gravity of the Earth. It's called gravity assist. Can that now result in this guy going and finding another object like Mars? And when you get to Mars, can I swing by Mars to come back to the Earth again, all the time I'm going around the Sun? That's complex. And a lot of people had thought about bridges. This is a transportation system between Earth and Mars. So I looked at it. I analyzed it. I'd done this between the Earth and the moon a little bit. And I came up with a way that I thought would work. Lo and behold it worked. JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] verified that, yes, this system of cycling orbits will work. So I've been working on perfecting, refining, making them more useful for the real world of doing things. And we now have a very good system that I am absolutely convinced that NASA will adopt before we go to Mars. They will go to Mars using the system that I've been pioneering. So I know how to do that.
I also think that I know how to -- with other people's help -- build rockets that are re-useable, that are practical. I know how to get people in space, because I've listened and heard what a lot of people say and realized that by putting up a lot of things we will make things cheaper, more reliable. We'll develop just the things that are needed to make going to the moon an acceptable political commitment. You have to do things in a progressive way for that to be an acceptable thing to do. To spend the money you reduce the cost and you make it acceptable to the people. | July 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.