AMAC: Dr. Aldrin, it is a pleasure to hear your views. Last year, you celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, and this year you turned 90, and you seem to be as high-energy as ever, still focused on human space exploration and concerned about America’s future in space. Can you elaborate on your hopes for the future?
Dr. Aldrin: I am still focused on America’s leadership in space because I think it matters, for reasons tied to national security and destiny of our species. I am on the President’s Space Council and offer ideas when asked. Generally, we need to get the right architecture for efficient moon missions and then move on to Mars. We also need to start thinking less about one-off visits and more about permanence, exploring in depth, reaching outward to create a sustained human presence. Sending people out to look around, then return and write books or give speeches seems like something we have done. The time is now to start thinking about permanence, since technologies exist now that did not in 1969.
AMAC: When you went to the moon, you and Neil Armstrong left a plaque that read “We Came in Peace for All Mankind.” Do you have any reflections on that now?
Dr. Aldrin: Yes, I do. We did come in peace for all humankind. America is an exceptional nation—and while we defend our liberties, we want the world to be at peace—here and out there. We beat the Soviets head-to-head, which may have accelerated the Cold War’s end, and we opened a door to détente in space with the Apollo-Soyuz program. In any event, we believed in peace— and competition, the competition of ideas, which is still going on today. You know, the 1960s were unsettled times, a bit like now, yet the Apollo program showed that with focus and good intent, we Americans can come together and do extraordinary, almost unimaginable things. We must never lose that character trait. We must also never lose the will to explore. Humans must explore or expire.
AMAC: That brings us to recent events. I know you track space-based developments closely and probably watched the recent SpaceX launch.
Dr. Aldrin: Yes, I did watch that launch—and docking—with excitement. The two-man Dragon crew left from pad 39A, the same one Mike, Neil, and I left from for the moon, so that was exciting. America should be launching Americans on American rockets from American soil, and I am glad we are.
AMAC: What does that launch mean for America’s future in space?
Dr. Aldrin: It means we are back in the business of launching humans into space, which is a good thing, perhaps overdue. But it also reminds us that we must move beyond Earth’s orbit back into the heavens. Our destiny is not to orbit but to explore. Our mission cannot be to stay where we have been but must be centered on constantly reaching outward, learning, growing, exploring.
AMAC: Are you optimistic about our spacefaring future as a nation?
Dr. Aldrin: Of course. America’s future in space is bright, never more than now. But we do need to get on with it. When we left for the moon, America had already launched 19 manned missions. We just need to readjust our sights, start aiming higher. Next should be humans on the moon, then in short order manned missions to Mars. Getting to Mars will be hard work—refining launch trajectories, re-entry speeds, radiation protection; assuring human life support for the duration—but if these are lofty goals, they are achievable. Arguably, they are more attainable than our moon mission seemed to many when President Kennedy put us on that track in 1961. Remember, we had not gotten a man into orbit at that time.
AMAC: What do you think draws humans into space? What causes us to imagine a future of humans living in space, on the moon or Mars, if you have ever reflected on the question?
Dr. Aldrin: Putting geopolitics and national security to the side—although both matter—we humans are born explorers. We first learn to walk and yearn to go somewhere, then to run, cycle, and drive—always with a destination in sight. Some of us learned to fly, and in that group, some flew spaceships into orbit. A few became lunar module pilots, taking a spacecraft down to the moon from lunar orbit—at which point we used our walking skills again. But to put it simply, we humans are curious: we wonder, so we wander. We explore. The universe is vast, but the next steps seem clear. The truth is that humankind loves to explore, needs to explore, and now has the technology, accumulated history in space, and power to explore.
AMAC: You are a visionary and explorer, comfortable with risks, somehow able to manage fear, a dreamer and doer. After West Point, combat missions over Korea, and a PhD from MIT in astronautical engineering, you flew with Jim Lovell on Gemini 12 and then to the moon on Apollo 11. You have experienced things no one on Earth has, or only very few. Let me take you back in time. If you will indulge me, I have a couple of questions about that incredible trip out to the moon. What was sitting in the rocket at launch like?
Dr. Aldrin: It was exciting. As countdown proceeded, we were glad we did not have to start over. The launch went smoothly. Nothing unexpected happened. We actually did not know exactly when we had left the ground, except from the instruments we were watching and voice communications. From the instruments, we could see our rate of climb and altitude changing, but we were comfortable in our seats. We sort of looked at each other and thought, “We must be on our way, what’s next?”
AMAC: What went through your mind when you landed on the moon?
Dr. Aldrin: As we approached the moon, we leveled off and kept moving down and forward to land. We knew we were continuing to burn fuel. We knew what we had, and then we heard “30 seconds left.” So, it was nice to finally touch down. We saw our shadow cast in front of us as we landed, something we never saw in the simulator. That was new. I saw dust creating a haze, not particles but a haze from the engine pushing dust up. The light turned on, I announced “contact light,” “engine stop.” We were happy to have landed. I guess Neil and I smiled.
AMAC: Did you think about home while you were flying to the moon or on the moon?
Dr. Aldrin: While others thought about what we were doing, we were very concentrated on being on the moon. As Neil climbed down the ladder, mission control told us they were getting an image, but it was upside down. They fixed that, and soon we were both out of the lunar module and on the surface. Neil called it “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and the moon looked to me like “magnificent desolation.” But on the moon, we had jobs to do. We had experiments to set out, and so we concentrated on that more than anything else. As for thinking about all those watching, we really did not think much about that. We were focused on mission control. They were the people we had to think about most.
Of course, it was exciting. Neil decided where to put the camera, and I got out two experiments and carried them. We were focused on the experiments, making sure they were level, pointed toward the sun. One experiment involved a sort of level with a small BB settling in the center of a cone. In one-sixth gravity, the BB kept going around and around. I stepped away, did other work, and then came back— to find the BB centered and the experiment level. On the moon, a leveling device does not give level right away!
AMAC: Did you have any special thoughts as you returned, and at splashdown time?
Dr. Aldrin: We were glad to be coming home. There is only one Earth. On splashdown, we had to throw a switch to release the parachutes, only it was a bit bumpy, so we tipped over before we could release the parachutes, then the balloons tipped us right side up again. It was good to be back, to see and talk with family. People often remember the photo of us at a window in the containment trailer. Funny story. When they played the national anthem, we wanted to stand up but to be at the window, we had to kneel. We certainly were glad to be back home in America. Even this many years later, it was a privilege to have been on that first mission to the lunar surface, an honor to have worked with so many good and dedicated people and to have left footprints there. Sometimes, I marvel that we went to the moon. I think, it is time for the next generation to aim high, carry the mission forward, and put new prints up there, and on Mars.
AMAC: Thank you so much for this time and your candor. You are truly the living definition of an American hero, and I think I can say everyone at AMAC, in America, and around the world feels that way. For being who you are, for loving this country, for taking risks for a high purpose, and for leaving that plaque on the moon—which honors the American spirit and all of us— thank you.