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Why Mars beats the moon – and everything else Buzz Aldrin told us

AP/Press Association Images

Forty-five years ago, Buzz Aldrin became the second man to step on to the moon’s surface. At 84 years old, he’s now an avid campaigner for establishing an outpost on Mars. For a story in our upcoming issue we spoke to Buzz about why we should go to the red planet, why it’s so difficult to get there and how he feels about reality TV initiative Mars One. Here’s the full transcript of our interview with this living legend. Want to know more about the race to colonise Mars? Subscribe to DG now and read about it in issue #15.

Why should we go to Mars?
As far back as before the Russian and United States space programs, Mars has had a significant attraction. It goes back to Percival Lowell and his observations of canals [he theorised these were built by an intelligent life form on Mars]. In 1938 there was a radio program based on H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’. My home state of New Jersey was the location of the fictitious landing. I was 8 years old at the time so [Mars] has always had a mysterious attraction ever since those early years.

Being the closest earth-like planet, it has naturally been an objective beyond the Earth-Moon system that is very logical. Perhaps it had some beginnings of life, which has a great fascination for so many people. I’m interested but I’m not compelled about whether it did have life. Still, this could determine whether the climate on Mars can be moved back to what it was, to a more human habitation-compatible state.

Do we have anything to gain from going to Mars? Or do we want to go there because we can, just like we climb the mountain because it’s there?
We climb the mountain to see what’s on the other side. What’s on the other side of Mars is an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter which has a far greater significance for mineral support activity than the near-Earth objects. Mars could very well be a staging location for the resources of the asteroid belt. We have to learn how to get a payback somewhere, but it’s beyond Mars that the real payoff will come from minerals.

What’s the biggest challenge standing in the way of a manned mission to Mars?
Funding. Sending humans to Mars is certainly an accepted objective of the space programme of the United States. We need to put our money where our mouth is.

The people at Nasa are very much driven by budgetary limitations. An example of this is redirecting a segment of an asteroid back to Earth, rather than a combined robotic and human mission to an asteroid in place. In 2010 the president gave us a human mission to an asteroid as an objective. But they rejected that because [redirecting the asteroid segment] is the only thing we could do with a small amount of money. That is hardly justification for wasting that small amount of money.

And why is the funding not there? Are people losing interest in space exploration?
It’s kind of a vicious circle. If there isn’t much going on to interest the American people, or to inspire the workforce, then it will be spurred on by other nations who require us to respond in a competitive catch-up mode the way that Germany did with the V-2 rocket and Russia with Sputnik. I hope [increasing funding] doesn’t require such drastic disruptions.”

You’ve talked about the fact that the first astronauts going to Mars should stay there. Why is this ‘permanence’ so important?
If the minerals of the asteroid belt are indeed very valuable then we need to develop a presence on Mars. But I think the best way to look at is to ask yourself how much the world and the US has invested in the first crews that land on Mars, and if we bring them back to Earth what we could do with them. They can’t really be very helpful training future crews, because we have other professional trainers here who have been watching what they did when they were there. So they’re not really that useful for future missions. While they were on Mars, we’ve heard all we can from them. They can write books and memoirs and go down in history, but as far as being helpful to the investment that we have made in them, that is best carried out by them remaining on Mars.

But isn’t that an incredibly hostile environment to live out your life in?
That depends on how well we’ve done in preparing that environment. The capabilities of expanding and improving that, that’s the challenge we have here on Earth: for a humanity on Earth that has evolved here for hundreds of thousands of years, to now develop a sustainable presence on another planet where we might be successful in evolving the conditions over a long period of time to be more compatible with human existence.

I would much prefer the environment of Mars [to that of the Moon]. First off, you’re going to stay there a long time, so we will build structures and living conditions suitable for laboratory and habitation. The temperatures are more acceptable and there is a small amount of pressure which means that the space suits for outside travel excursions don’t have to be quite as vacuum compatible as the pressure suits required on the moon.

I also think the accumulation of a very, very elite gathering of human beings will have a bonding effect that has not evolved, much to my disdain, among the 24 Americans who have reached the Moon. There doesn’t seem too much compatibility, or much desire for togetherness and I would certainly like to see that happen [for astronauts going to Mars].

Mars One is trying to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to build a colony on Mars and turn it into a reality TV show – do you think they can pull it off?
I’m really unfamiliar with the reality shows of survival of individual human beings under adverse conditions. Whether it’s a boy chasing a girl, or a girl chasing a boy, it seems to be very popular in generating an audience and generating an associated cash flow. But I’m just not sure that is adequate for the commercial development of the technologies needed to get the candidates to where they can actually be pioneering survivors.

As far as Mars goes there’s probably a need for combining resources rather than relying on an individual source of funding. To me, for Mars One to succeed they would need to combine with SpaceX rocket systems. Those rocket systems could develop inspirational missions early that would help to inspire and fascinate the people of the Earth who are ultimately the providers of the resources that enable certain human representatives to get to Mars.

Is it realistic to send ‘normal’ people to Mars, who may not have had the same training as astronauts, as Mars One intends to do?
You need people like forest rangers with a self-sustaining capacity to live off the land; using what’s available so we don’t have to transport it there. Those people are independent people. They’re not just drawn from thrill-seeking people who are maybe inspired by the idea of gaining fame, without the qualifications really to make a noteworthy contribution to humanity. They’re merely volunteering for what many people think is a very dangerous sort of hazardous expedition.

If they do succeed, what would your advice to the organisation and astronauts be?
To Mars One, that if their difficulties or their failures result in a delay of sending a mission that’s more capable and more permanently prepared for eventualities than their rather sparse systems that support getting there in a big hurry, they may threaten indeed the entire effort of humanity to establish a growing outpost of humanity on another planet. To the astronauts, they have a terrific opportunity to do something no one has ever done before and, while there is great sacrifice, there is even greater responsibility that comes with that. Treat it with humility and respect, do your best to contribute and thrive.

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