Besides being the second human being to set foot on the Moon, and writing a doctoral thesis that wound up being crucial to the orbital rendezvous techniques that made the manned lunar missions possible, and spending the last forty years serving as an unofficial ambassador/cheerleader for manned spaceflight, and still finding time to perform other acts of heroism such as punching Bart Sibrel right in his fucking face, Buzz Aldrin is also well known as the smartest of all the astronauts. Don’t believe me? Just ask him.
Oh, but I kid Buzz. I know rumor has it that NASA sent him to the Moon on Apollo 11 just to get rid of him for a week, but he is one smart son of a bitch, and has led one of the most remarkable and consequential lives in the history of our species. So let him strut his stuff every now and then. Like he does in this editorial he wrote for the Washington Post a few days ago, where he takes the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing to break with NASA orthodoxy and push his vision for our next step into space:
On television and in movies, Star Trek showed what could be achieved when we dared to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” In real life, I’ve traveled that path, and I know that with the right goal and support from most Americans, we can boldly go, again.
A race to the moon is a dead end. . . . And replaying the glory days of Apollo will not advance the cause of American space leadership or inspire the support and enthusiasm of the public and the next generation of space explorers.
Now, I am not suggesting that America abandon the moon entirely, only that it forgo a moon-focused race. . . . Let the lunar surface be the ultimate global commons while we focus on more distant and sustainable goals to revitalize our space program. Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America’s future. I am not suggesting a few visits to plant flags and do photo ops but a journey to make the first homestead in space: an American colony on a new world.
Now, it ain’t quite “Mars, bitches!” or “Red rocks!” but as slogans for a manned Mars-shot, “Mars for America’s Future” is pretty good. It sounds far-fetched now, but that’s only because there’s been no leadership. When John Kennedy asked the Mercury 7 not long after Alan Shepard’s first sub-orbital flight if they thought it was feasible to send them to the Moon and bring them back safely by the end of the decade, they were enthusiastic, but they also all naturally assumed he’d lost his mind. Eight years later, Armstrong and Aldrin were standing in the Sea of Tranquility. Back then the president came out publicly and set a clear, audacious, challenging goal. Compare that to the apathy of more recent presidents, who instead of “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” have given us such stirring visions as “maybe going back to the Moon in the next twenty or thirty years wouldn’t be such a terrible idea.”
Wow, sign me up.
After witnessing the liftoff of Apollo 11 forty years ago, Wernher von Braun, the scientist who had designed and supervised the construction of the Saturn V rocket, reportedly said, “Give me ten more years and ten billion more dollars and I’ll put a man on Mars.” We should have listened to him then. Doing it now is gonna cost way more than ten billion. But he had the right idea then, just as Buzz does now. It’s been forty years since we first traveled to the Moon, and almost thirty-seven since our most recent visit. Since then NASA and other space exploration agencies from all across the planet have done extraordinary things — the Pioneer and Voyager missions, the continued exploration of Mars and the rest of the inner solar system, the construction of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station — but no manned mission has ever left low Earth orbit.
Time to get moving.