I recently read Buzz Aldrin’s new book, Mission to Mars on my Kindle. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what Buzz is proposing in his vision of the future for manned space exploration, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.
After mothballing the Space Shuttle, and hitching rides with the Russians to get to and from the ISS, NASA has pinned all of its hopes on the future of space flight on the new Orion capsule, and their most powerful launch system to date, the SLS (Space Launch System). Touted as a deep-space exploration vehicle that could carry up to seven passengers, the Orion capsule’s construction is well under way and a test flight is scheduled for 2015. According to Buzz, this is a shortsighted and time wasting endeavor when there are practical and achievable options out there that will eventually lead to a permanent presence on our sister planet, Mars.
We already know of Buzz’s many accomplishments during his life. Receiving his Ph.D. from MIT, his doctoral thesis outlines the methods that have been used by NASA since the Mercury program that allow vehicles to rendezvous and link up in in orbit around the Earth, and later allowed the Apollo LM to return to the CM following a moon landing. During the Shuttle days, his methods were used to retrieve and repair satellites, the Hubble telescope, and today are used to get Soyuz craft to the ISS. His methods earned him the name Dr. Rendezvous in his early days as an astronaut with NASA.
Buzz’s most notable accomplishment, of course, was as a member of the Apollo 11 crew that touched down on the moon and successfully returned samples of lunar material to the earth for future study in July of 1969 (I was twelve years old).
What Buzz proposes is an economical and efficient way to begin to reach beyond low Earth orbit, leave the shores of the cosmic ocean, and take those first tentative steps into the depths of space. He proposes what he terms a Unified Space Vision headed by a non-governmental space council made up of scientists and engineers that have a vision encompassing all nations of our planet to work for a single goal, which is a permanent human presence on Mars. He doesn’t discuss the economics of his proposals very much, but rather the purpose of his essay is to possibly inspire the vision of future space travel in those who would be dealing with the financing of such a project.
Mission to Mars opens with a brief look back to the history of space flight and how the policies of space exploration have changed in the four to eight year cycle of the U.S. presidents and their policies. In other words, our exploration of space has in the past, and continues to depend on the vision of a single person who proposes and sets policies based on the political climate of the times. For instance, JFK proposed that by the end of the 1960’s, the U.S. would land people on the moon and return them safely to the Earth, but the reasons for this endeavor were not solely fueled by the need for exploration and scientific understanding, but rather as an outcropping of the Cold War between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union. We had to beat those Russians to the high ground of space to remain on top. He also points out that explorations of our own planet have been tied to similar motivations throughout history.
The most intriguing parts of Buzz’s writing is on the how to do it that is being proposed, and some of that is already under way. First, low Earth orbital activities need to be left to private enterprise. As many of us know, efforts are already underway thanks to the efforts of companies such as SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corporation are already either making, or will be making flights to the ISS with supplies and returning cargo to Earth. The future promises that these companies will also be ferrying astronauts within the next few years. Next, he asks why NASA is planning to go to the moon again. Why not leave the moon to other entities to explore and bring back resources while we set our vision to the future? We’ve been to the moon, it is time, in Buzz’s vision, to move beyond the Earth-moon system and continue on to Mars and the asteroid belt.
Buzz proposed that we set up a system of vehicles that move between the moon and the Earth, and between the Earth and Mars called Cyclers. These Cyclers will be constant motion between celestial bodies to ferry people to and from destinations. These cycling vehicles could be further supported by craft that are permanently “parked” at points called Lagrangian Points where gravitational forces and the orbital motions of bodies balance. These proposals, for one thing, would eliminate the need for having to constantly lift the bulk needed to reach bodies in space, which most of that bulk consists of fuel and water. The moon, Mars and asteroids could be mined for those vital resources that are needed for propulsion to and from the cyclers.
Buzz has consulted with numerous experts in many fields of study to put together his Unified Space Vision and presents it in a way that is understandable to the layman and is a good read for those that are interested in the future, as well as some aspects of the past of space exploration.
It is my sincere hope that Mission to Mars gets into the right hands as an inspiration to future policy makers to see that it doesn’t necessarily take a cold war to spark exploration and scientific discovery.
Well, there it is…