Aldrin graduated third in his class at West Point in
1951 and received his Ph.D. in astronautics in 1963 from MIT, the same year as
his selection as a NASA astronaut. On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil
Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the Moon. Aldrin is currently a
member of the Presidential Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace
Industry. He is founder of Starcraft Boosters, a company developing economical
space launchers, and the ShareSpace Foundation, dedicated to making space
tourism possible for all people.
Developing reusable space booster rockets and
an eventual replacement for the Space Shuttle will carry a big price tag. By
spreading the development base for such systems to private civil applications,
such as space tourism, the cost burden can be eased.
Design News: What are the major
aerospace technology trends?
Aldrin: There is a movement toward unmanned aircraft for
reconnaissance and long distance strike. Pilots may counter that idea with the
need for humans to make judgements on the spot. However, as brave as they are,
the trend is to take less risk for pilot loss or
In space, we need to clearly
justify the human presence in low Earth orbit by saying it’s to specialize in
human adventure travel or it’s a precursor to sending humans beyond orbit. In
other words, say it’s either for, what I favor as soon as possible, establishing
a growing potential to develop an adventure travel market, or sending humans to
the Moon, Mars, or asteroids. Appropriate government support (in the form of
development of low-cost reusable boosters that can be adapted to such use) will
make possible a profit and opens up great potential for reduced cost and
increased reliability of travel to orbit. Large capacity will be needed to
support adventure travel and that can be obtained by heavy lift rockets, not
only using the basic rocket payload volume but also augmenting that with the
core stage’s empty tanks to build facilities in orbit. We’ll need such large
capacity to handle the traffic for those going up for more than an initial
flight of 24 hours. On their second trip, people will want to stay five to seven
There is no way you can carve
out a separate private-sector financed space transportation system and
destination facility. You have to combine their development with things that are
needed by the government for its space uses. The next generation Shuttle, or
evolutionary boosters leading to one, needs to satisfy NASA’s needs and be
capable of modification to carry an economical number of people, say 60 to
80—like the development of the Boeing KC-135 Air Force tanker and the 707
airliner in the ‘50s, they were very similar aircraft.
Q: What do you see as the most dramatic
developments in the next five years?
A: I would hope it would be development of
demonstrator reusable first-stage rockets that point the way to multiple use
configurations of a medium-lift flyback booster fueled by kerosene. They would
have applications on present expendable launch vehicles and would support launch
of crew transfer vehicles to Earth orbit, augmenting and gradually replacing the
Space Shuttle in this function. We have to replace the Shuttle with a
third-generation horizontal takeoff vehicle (being studied for the next ten
years) because a full-blown three-stage, fully reusable second-generation
replacement won’t be affordable.
If that third generation doesn’t
pan out (depending on the development of airbreathing engines that have to be
turbojet, ramjet, and scramjet all in one), and we still have about ten years
life left on the Shuttle, then we can evolve these medium boosters into flyback
boosters for Shuttle use, replacing the solid rockets. This flyback booster can
then also serve as a next generation
If we are going to fly the
Shuttle for 20 more years, then I want to move toward accepting that we can put
a container in the cargo bay for adventure travelers—accepting the risk that in
the event of a bail out of the crew up front the potential to save the
passengers is significantly diminished. However, even the chance of the crew
getting out and surviving is a small probability
Q: Could a Shuttle replacement be
A: We may want an
unmanned cargo delivery system because of the simplicity of its mission of
delivering cargo someplace and returning as much of the expensive delivery
“hardware” as possible. But if that vehicle is so reliable, why not put a crew
in there anyway? That vehicle could even be an adaptation of a crewed vehicle.
But the primary replacement for the Shuttle should be to deliver a human crew to
low Earth orbit for NASA missions and, with a modification of it, to deliver
Q: What is most critical to sustain our
space technology growth and leadership?
A: We need an inspired and enthusiastic
workforce to develop the creative, innovative ideas to improve our space effort.
We need a more educated public as to the realities and attractions of human
spaceflight. They need to understand it much more, but it needs to be put in
front of them and made available. You can do that through multiple, credible
lottery selections for spaceflights. It’s going to be very expensive if you have
to buy your own ticket. You have to have a system for selecting people other
than just the wealthy, because taxpayer money has been expended in development
of a dual purpose NASA/adventure travel vehicle. If limited to just wealthy
people, it is not going to be a popular program.
Q: Some Russians recently proposed a joint
U.S.-Russian manned Mars mission. What is your view on this?
A: That’s a straw man by the Russians who are
exuberant to establish ‘rights’ on a technical concept of a mission. They’re
very good at defining what this could be. If they can’t afford it, they will
still say ‘It’s our concept, therefore we need to have crew members on the
mission.’ Right now, I don’t think they can afford the 30% they said they’d
offer. And there’s not enough interest in the two countries to work on this
Q: Would there be benefits in returning to manned
A: That’s premature. We don’t have an economic
return and there isn’t political support without an economic return or a much
cheaper access-to-space system and public support that would come from adventure
travel. Those have to come first.
Q: If, by some miracle, the NASA budget were
doubled, how would you say to spend it?
A: We need to have a multipurpose crew transfer
vehicle and a quick adaptation of it into a simple orbital lifeboat for the
space station so we can increase the station crew size. As we develop that
vehicle we should have long duration Shuttles to stay up there for up to 90
days, so we could have seven people on the station (or perhaps 10 crew members
if the Soyuz is used as well) at those times. You could then get a lot more
Even doubling the NASA budget,
we can’t afford the full-blown next generation Shuttle replacement. I’d rather
see an evolutionary first stage built and augment current expendable launchers
with these reusable strap-on boosters. Then from that we can grow a second or
third generation Shuttle.
There are a lot of other things
that can be carried out, science missions and updating the support facilities
both at Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg in California. We have to inspire
the workforce, which is aging. We should vigorously pursue protecting the Earth
from devastating effects of a random impact from space. We have to develop a
planetary defense system by understanding more fully what objects are out there
that could possibly impact the Earth—which requires many more telescopes, and
even some orbital ones. Then we have to establish and test mitigation or
deflection techniques on non-impacting objects so we know what to do to divert
the path of a potential impacting object.
would you see the military’s role in future space
A: The military needs to develop, in conjunction
with the demonstrator reusable first stage, a small or medium operational
reusable booster to go with varieties of upper stages. This will allow
delivering a spaceplane quickly, anywhere in the world, that can do
reconnaissance on demand or weapons delivery.
Q: What skills are most
valuable for aerospace design engineers
A: It’s no longer just computer skills. It has to
be marketing and communications skills as well. Engineers need to write reports
and be able to market their ideas.