I have interviewed the world’s richest men. Have grilled the chief executives of some the country’s biggest companies and peered at test tubes with many of the world’s leading scientists – but my family have never been excited by the prospects of what I was going to do until I told them I was off to meet a man who walked on the moon.
Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the lunar surface. In fact only 12 people have shared that adventure in the whole history of mankind.
It’s taken some time to set up this interview and despite offering to fly to wherever he was, it turns out that the most convenient time for him to meet me is when he is in London.
Buzz is 86 years old but he walks into our room like a rock star – which of course he is in a very literal way. He wears a short leather biking jacket and his fingers are covered in chunky rings. He has some large bracelets and star spangled braces. He drapes his leather jacket over the chair to reveal a trim body and a tight black tee-shirt.
He must have told his stories thousands of times but his eyes remain bright and he’s full of an energy that belie his 86 years.
I wanted to meet him not so much to talk about the adventures of his past but of his ideas for future space travel and in particular his designs to enable astronauts to travel to Mars.
Mars is roughly 225 million kilometers from earth. In a Jumbo Jet it would take more than 30 years, one way. With our current space technology we’re talking six to eight months.
To get round the problem of having to carry huge amounts of fuel to power the long journey to Mars – the Aldrin-Cycler spacecraft would use the gravitational orbit of earth and Mars to help keep a vessel on a continual orbit between the two planets.
Earth bound astronauts would then only need a rocket to leave Earth and join the Aldrin Cycler on which they are hitching a ride. Once the Cycler gets near to Mars they would then use their rocket to jump off and make a relatively small journey down to the Red Planet.
The Cycler relies on the right alignment of planets, so it couldn’t be used on a whim. And it would still take more than 5 months to get to Mars - nuclear propulsion – which in theory uses a series of nuclear explosions to create thrust - could be much faster at around 30 days. The Florida Institute of Technology, in the United States is working with Buzz to develop his ideas.
His idea, he says, is being taken seriously but I asked him whether it felt rather old fashioned to worry about putting people on Mars when robots could do the job as well. Wasn’t this idea a but stuck in the philosophy of the Apollo missions of old.
Not old fashioned and not silly, he says. Buzz talked about how we already built 2 Mars Rovers. In the space of 5 years he says they did the work that an astronaut could have done in 1 week. Humans are still better than machines.
As Buzz’s family and assistants start looking like they need to move him to his next engagement, I asked how confident he was we would eventually land a person on Mars.
Getting there is the easy part, he says. It’s getting back that might be more difficult. With that he was rushed off to meet a party of school children at the Science Museum’s space exhibition. With that, Buzz and his leather jacket bobs off into the distance followed by a comet-like tail of fans, family and advisors.