The Magazine

On to Mars?

An astronaut makes the case for exploration.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSHUA GELERNTER
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On July 21, 1969, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin joined Neil Armstrong on the moon’s surface and launched a new epoch of human history. It’s safe to say that this is the best-known item on Buzz Aldrin’s résumé. 

The Martian landscape, 1997

The Martian landscape, 1997

Less known is the item that won Aldrin his spot in the space program to begin with: Buzz of NASA is also Dr. Buzz of MIT. Before he was inducted into the astronaut corps, Aldrin wrote a doctoral thesis on orbital rendezvous that impressed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration enough to land him a job. Buzz Aldrin is not your basic cosmic cowboy: He has a big mind that ranked among those assembled for the biggest science project ever pulled off. Since crossing the space-race finish line 44 years ago, Aldrin has continued to bring his ideas to bear on the nation’s gradually atrophied space ambition. His latest effort is this book.

For a man whose life is ripped from the pages of science fiction, Aldrin is remarkably practical. He doesn’t want us going to Mars to have a quick look around and come home, the way we did with the moon. (There were only six moon landings, and they spanned less than three years.) Real progress, says Aldrin, means being on Mars permanently; he wants us to colonize, not visit. And, being practical, he knows that the United States has limited funds to spend on its space program. 

Mission to Mars is a point-by-point plan for making the trip to Mars as cheap and simple as possible. First, forget racing China and Russia back to the moon; America has nothing to gain by rerunning a race we’ve already won. Let the other space-faring countries put men back on the moon: We’ll trade them our experience for “an occasional seat on their landers.” And while they take charge of establishing an international moon station, the United States will conserve “the precious dollar resources needed for the great leap to Mars.”

Next, forget Mars. Going directly from planet to planet is impractical. Fortunately, Mars comes equipped with a convenient way station: Phobos. With the same surface area as Delaware, Phobos is the larger of Mars’s two little moons—and, being little, it has the advantage of also being light on gravity and atmosphere. A planet’s worth of gravity makes comings and goings take a lot of energy, and an atmosphere means having to withstand a lot of heat and friction on the way to the surface. 

Not so for Phobos, where a pre-Martian colony will allow astronauts to make remote-control landing preparations that are impossible from more-distant Earth. When the Phobos astronauts are ready for the final descent, Mars will be a scant 6,000 miles beneath them.

To get ready for Phobos, which is essentially an asteroid, Aldrin says we need to land on an asteroid: Further from the Earth than the moon but (potentially) much nearer than Mars, a passing asteroid would give astronauts a chance to practice Phobian landings on trips measured in weeks instead of years. Landing on an asteroid passing near Earth would also mean being prepared for the statistically inevitable day when we have to deal with an asteroid heading straight for us. 

To make it to the practice asteroid, we need money and enthusiasm. For that, Aldrin turns to the free market. Space tourism is about to become big business, with the Virgin Atlantic spin-off Virgin Galactic leading the charge. (Its first space flight with paying passengers is scheduled to take off later this year.) Last year, a private company called SpaceX delivered supplies to the International Space Station; two years from now, they’ll be delivering people. And a half-dozen other companies have similar plans. 

Aldrin hopes the promise of adventure will lure tourists to space—and the promise of customers will lure private enterprise. Plus, in a decade or so, big business can start strip-mining heavenly bodies. Aldrin’s timeline has us visiting an asteroid in the early 2020s, Phobos in the early 2030s, and Mars by 2035. I’d rather it be sooner—but Aldrin is 83, and 60 years older than me. So if he can wait, I suppose I can, too.

When that 2035 Mars mission rolls around, it won’t mean anything to Aldrin if it’s a one-off. His plan demands a steady supply of new, permanent residents—and while the prospect of permanent Martian residence might be daunting, Aldrin fairly points out that when the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, they weren’t expecting a return trip to the Old World. He wants adventurers to homestead Mars, to set up frontier towns, warm the atmosphere, plant some plants, and establish humanity as a two-planet species.