To Infinity and Beyond

The Washington Post Magazine
(Cover painting by Robert McCall - Courtesy NASA)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 15, 2005

"Mission to Mars," an artist's conception of the future landing of the first humans on the red planet.(1990 Painting by Ren Wicks - Courtesy NASA)
He climbed from the lunar module and paused on the final step. Through his visor he surveyed an alien world. It had no sky. It had no life. It was airless and cold. The horizon loomed just a mile or so away, and it curved. The shadows seemed almost supernaturally black, bereft of the scattered light seen in Earth shadows. His footsteps would remain in the packed powder virtually forever, for this was a place without erosion. Nothing moved but his fellow astronaut, already bounding around.

And in that moment, ready to step on the moon, Buzz Aldrin described what he saw: "Magnificent desolation."

Night had fallen across much of the United States as people crowded around the television to watch Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. The future had arrived ballistically, so fast people weren't sure they could trust their senses. Some remained convinced years later that it was all a hoax. The astronauts cut a ghostly outline, as though the camera had double vision. The images were flickering, fuzzy, dreamlike.

But it was all true, and now, decades later, here was the man himself: Buzz Aldrin had come to Disney World!

He was in a ballroom at the Contemporary Resort, the A-frame hotel with the park's monorail running through its center. Aldrin is getting up in years, but he's handsome, tidy, with a shiny little crescent moon pinned to his lapel ("You get that one for coming back," he said). He is astronaut-size, compact, perhaps even a bit elfin; you half expect he'll pull moon dust from his pocket and cast a spell.

Aldrin is a space entrepreneur, and he had come to Orlando for a portentous event, the first Space Exploration Conference, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lockheed Martin and various other firms and organizations with a big stake in space. The context of the conference was a startling fact: The United States has vowed to send people back to the moon. Then to Mars. Then all over the solar system. This is the president's directive, embraced by NASA. It's called the Vision for Space Exploration.

Or simply: the Vision.

How good it is to have a vision! The space people had demanded a vision for years, something better than this round-and-round-and-round business with the space shuttle and the space station, both stuck in a major rut in LEO -- low Earth orbit.

The Vision is pure rocket fuel. "Human beings are headed into the cosmos," the president of the United States declared last year.

The Disney crowd ranged from NASA bureaucrats to freelance rocketeers to hard-core space buffs. They were all exuding optimism, bouncing around as though gravity had weakened. You kept expecting them to say, like the Gene Kranz character in the movie "Apollo 13," "Failure is not an option."

The presence of someone like Aldrin gives any space event a touch of magic. He's treated almost as a deity -- for gosh sakes, he walked on the freakin' moon. And now he had ideas about where we go next: "A logical step is to visit Earth-crossing asteroids."

We were just brainstorming in the hallway.

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