As the Obama Administration presents its 2017 budget to Congress tomorrow for review (and an inevitable fight), I’m immediately struck by the relevance of the event to a seminal book that I just finished. Buzz Aldrin’s “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration” is a powerful explication of a specific near-future strategy for NASA’s manned exploration activities, as well as a potent meditation on the importance of such a strategy for this country and indeed, for humanity.
Aldrin really doesn’t need any introducing, as he is of course the second man to walk on another planetary body, the Moon in July, 1969. His qualifications to speak on such a topic are obviously legion. As such, I feel wholly unqualified to really “review” and pass judgment on any of the technical assertions he makes in the book. However, I am particularly attracted to his concept of “Aldrin cyclers”—spacecraft “cycling” in virtual perpetuity between astronomical bodies (the Earth and Mars, or the Earth and the Moon, for instance), negating the very expensive necessity to expend massive amounts of fuel for acceleration and deceleration for each leg of a trip. The beautiful efficiency of such a design is obvious. Also attractive is the cultural paradigm shift such a design represents—from thinking of manned space “missions” as singular things, to long-term commitments, long-term investments really, with the utility of such spacecraft lasting possibly for decades.
Beyond technical proposals, Mission to Mars makes larger, more general assertions that any (every) American should consider. Aldrin references, of course, his experiences in the 1960’s at the birth of the space program and in Apollo—during an era defined both by rapid technological achievement and by simple, shining optimism. He states unequivocally, “Humanity is destined to explore, settle, and expand outward into the universe.” Aldrin is reminding a modern, disillusioned world of a reality that no one in this country would have argued against 40 years ago. He is, in effect, offering it up as the medicine to our equally modern, American malaise.
Toward the beginning of the book he asks directly what human spaceflight does for the country. “It reminds the American public,” he says, “that nothing is impossible if free people work together to accomplish great things.” Aldrin also makes the assertion that, “(Spaceflight) captures the imagination of our youth and inspires them to study science, technology, mathematics and engineering. Furthermore, a vigorous human spaceflight program fuels the American workforce with high technology and cutting-edge aerospace jobs. And it fosters collaborative international relationships to ensure U.S. foreign policy leadership.” Toward the first point, any economist could agree. The second point is equally convincing. As China, India, Japan and the other countries around the world take tentative first-steps into space, America’s experience and technological prowess could be leveraged. The United States could once again exercise influence and real leadership, in a universally respected, inherently a-political endeavor—if it once again woke up to the “destiny” of human space exploration Aldrin speaks of, and gives it its due.
It is this general theme—the significance of manned spaceflight—repeated throughout the book and indeed, one repeated by Aldrin for decades, that gives true substance to his ideas and the overall plan and strategy for manned spaceflight he’s presented. He does not cater to pessimists who would advocate significantly scaled-down long-term plans which lament “political and budgetary realities.” Instead, he offers a practical, ambitious plan for the manned exploration of space suitable to its importance for us all. I can only hope that our leaders in Washington could hear his “clarion call” and fund NASA sufficiently.
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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