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Buzz Aldrin calls NASA ‘adrift,’ wants to go to Mars, but first to White House

In July 1969, President Richard M. Nixon welcomed the Apollo 11 astronauts aboard the USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean after their successful lunar mission. Confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility are, from left: Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot. (NASA via Reuters)

“Joel, this is Buzz Aldrin. Apollo 11. First lunar landing.”

The message on my voicemail was, indeed, from that Buzz Aldrin, of that Apollo 11, and that first lunar landing. Aldrin — heck, let’s call him Buzz — had a lot to talk about. After two long phone interviews, I can safely report that Edwin Buzz Aldrin, age 84, hasn’t slowed down over the years. He’s more than an American hero: He’s a force of nature. He also doesn’t edit his remarks — you get full-strength Buzz whenever he opens his mouth.

Right now, his big focus is the 45th anniversary of the first lunar landing. His company has launched a social media campaign, featuring a YouTube video in which celebrities and scientists relay their memories of July 20, 1969. [Mine: Upstairs in Grandma Marjorie’s house in Richmond, Ind., awakened in the night to watch Neil Armstrong and then Buzz go down the ladder. Black-and-white flickering images on a big ol’ console TV like they don’t make anymore — almost the size of a mini-Cooper. At the time, we all thought “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" was immaculate and brilliant. So what if, technically, he meant to say “for a man" — and for the rest of his life said he really did say it and it got lost in transmission.]

In the new YouTube video, Buzz speaks into the camera:

“I feel we need to remind the world about the Apollo missions and that we can still do impossible things. The whole world celebrated our moon landing, but we missed the whole thing, because we were out of town.”

Buzz told me he hopes to meet with President Obama on July 20, the 45th anniversary of the lunar landing, in keeping with a tradition that Aldrin says goes back to 1969. President Richard M. Nixon met the quarantined Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins in the Pacific after they splashed down, and every five years since, the Apollo 11 crew has been honored with a ceremony at the White House, Aldrin says. Obama met with the three astronauts in 2009.

The White House hasn’t commented on what it will do July 20. The White House typically does not announce the president’s schedule this far in advance. Buzz said, “The president should be involved in the celebration.” He’d like Obama to use the anniversary to announce some long-term plans for human space exploration.

Armstrong died in 2012 (see my Armstrong appreciation on the A-blog); Collins keeps a low profile in Florida but presumably would show up, along with the eager Aldrin, who is ubiquitous at space conferences and is a passionate advocate for sending humans to Mars.

In his book “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration,” he notes that his Mars ambitions weren’t shared by Armstrong. Armstrong thought the U.S. should focus on returning to the moon for longer-duration missions. (Armstrong, though taciturn by nature, became vocal in his final years about NASA strategy. When I blogged about Armstrong and other astronauts lobbying for a moon mission, Armstrong sent me an on-background e-mail, taking issue with various points in my blog item.)

Aldrin writes about his periodic visits to the White House with his crewmates:

“Conversation in some cases turned to where the next step into the future should lie: Return to the moon or on to Mars? For me, Mars. Neil disagreed. He thought that the moon had more to teach us before we pressed onward to other challenges. Still, while we disagreed at times on that next destination and how best to get there, we were both resolute and shared a common belief: America must lead in space.”

I asked him what the other Apollo astronauts think about the future direction of NASA.

“The few that I know are so interested in calling attention to their achievement in life that they’re interested in return to the moon. I think that’s the biggest mistake we could ever do,” he said.

Of NASA, Buzz said, “I believe that we are — in other people’s terminology — adrift right now. We cannot take our own people to the space station. We invested 100 billion dollars.” [NASA currently pays the Russians to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station.]

He argues that the ancillary benefits of human spaceflight make the cost and effort worth it. Thinking back to Apollo 11, he says, “We had never heard of the word STEM. We didn’t know what was going on in Silicon Valley. And we didn’t think that beating the Russians to the moon would help immeasurably in ending the Cold War, but it did.”

He told me he’d like the next president to use the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing to say something Kennedyesque, such as, “I believe that this nation should commit itself within two decades to leading international permanence on the planet Mars.”

A NASA spokesman said, “As an agency, we’ll be talking about the 45th Anniversary in the context of what we are calling the ‘next giant leap’ which is our ambitious Path to Mars.” [The National Research Council says current NASA strategy and current budgets are not likely to produce a human mission to Mars in the foreseeable future, but NASA has recently been emphasizing that its long-term goals are Mars-centric.]

Buzz’s good friend Norm Augustine — who once journeyed with Buzz to the North Pole — says of the second man on the moon,  “It would have been very easy for him to sit back and rest on his laurels, but he’s out there working like the dickens to help the human spaceflight program.”

Augustine remembers being with Buzz when he testified on Capitol Hill in favor of one-way missions to Mars — in which astronauts would live out the rest of their lives without hope of returning to Earth.

Augustine: “Who would ever want to do that?”

Buzz: “Did you ever hear of the Pilgrims?”

UPDATE: Here’s a great discussion by Buzz on Reddit, including this Q and A:

Q: How did you guys decide who would walk on the moon first. Was it always going to be Neil from the beginning or was there some Rock Paper Scissors matches to decide?
A: I felt that there was an obligation on my part to put forth the reasons why a commander who had been burdened down with an enormous amount of responsibility and training for activities (and because of that, in all previous missions, if someone, a crew member, was to spacewalk, it was always the junior person, not the space commander who would stay inside). We knew this would be different because 2 people would be going out. There was a group at NASA who felt the junior person (me) should go out first, but many people felt the great symbology of the commander from past expeditions or arrivals at a destination. The decision that was made was absolutely correct as far as who went out first, symbolically. However who was in charge of the what happened after both people are outside, I believe, could have been done differently. I was not the commander, I was a junior person, so once both were outside, I followed my leader, because we (NASA) had not put together detailed jobs of people outside. I believe it could have been improved. But it was very successful for what it was. And the decision wasn’t up to me, or Neil, it was up to people much higher up in NASA.

Related: Vintage NASA photos