Legendary astronaut (and active Twitter user) Buzz Aldrin today delivered the first keynote at Campus Party Brasil, which TNW is attending in São Paulo all week. While the crowd was understandably keen to hear about his moon adventure, Aldrin also made sure to talk about his vision for the future of space exploration.
The first part of his talk was an answer to the question that he probably heard way too often: how did he end up being one of the first men to walk on the moon? “Timing is very important, and it has always been a key element in my life. I’ve been very blessed to be at the right place at the right time,” Aldrin said.
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Of course, it doesn’t mean that it all comes down to luck; among the other attributes that brought him so far, Aldrin mentioned his education, strong work ethics, a supportive family, and a sense of adventure which still hasn’t deserted him.
When he’s not giving lectures at Campus Parties and other events, he’s often busy scuba diving – his “favorite thing to do on this planet.” Over the last few years, he also made trips to the North Pole and to the wreck of the Titanic, and he “may be going to the South Pole later this year.”
It’s worth noting that Aldrin doesn’t see Apollo 11 as the mere work of a few extraordinary men. “My great adventure could never have happened without the collaboration of many, many people working together towards the same goal,” he pointed out. “It took a unified effort to accomplish what we did.”
From the Air Force to the moon
Aldrin told the Campus Party’s attendees about his personal background. His mother, Marion Moon – yes, Moon – was born in 1903, the same year the Wright brothers took their first powered flights; and his father, Edwin Eugene Aldrin, was a colonel in the US Air Force and an aviation pioneer.
As some of you may know, Aldrin also started his career in the Air Force, serving as a jet pilot in the Korean War before a tour of duty in Germany. He then went to MIT and obtained a Doctorate of Science in Astronautics with his thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous.
“My NASA fellows called me Dr. Rendezvous,” he remembers in a laugh. As a matter of fact, when Aldrin managed to join NASA’s third group of astronauts, his thesis work proved instrumental in making Apollo 11 a success, at a time where taking men to the moon (and back) had become a national priority.
It is important to keep in mind the general context that gave birth to the mission. “The primary objective of Apollo 11 was to complete a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961: perform a crewed lunar landing and return to Earth,” NASA acknowledges on its website.
As Aldrin recalled, JFK’s ambitious plan was a direct result of the Cold War, and a response to the Soviet Union following the launch of Sputnik and Gagarin’s space flight. Aldrin’s belief is that the success of the manned mission to the moon changed the course of history. “It diminished the confidence that the Soviets had in themselves, and contributed to the end of the Cold War.”
Still, Apollo 11 wasn’t only a victory for America. “We came in peace for all mankind,” reads the plaque that Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left behind on the moon. The moon mission was followed by nearly 1 billion people, Aldrin noted. “Everyone on Earth felt that they had participated to this achievement, and that feeling of participation shared by humanity has a tremendous value. They weren’t simply cheering up for three people.”
On the other hand, the astronauts didn’t have a Twitter connection, but they remained in touch with Earth: “Mission control in Houston was in constant communication with us, and we felt connected to Earth all the time.” It’s with Houston that they shared their first impressions of the moon and of its “magnificent desolation” – which is also the title of Aldrin’s second autobiographical book.
Aldrin also likes to make jokes, and it seems he always has. When departing the moon, he famously made a humorous response to Houston’s clearance to leave: “Roger. Understand. We’re number one on the runway.” Even now, when asked about the iconic picture showing Neil Armstrong’s reflection in his helmet visor, he can’t help but say that what makes it special can be summarized in three words: “Location, location, location.”
Rather than spending too much time speculating again on why Armstrong was first to leave the Eagle, Aldrin decided to look at Apollo 11 on a higher level: “It was an amazing story of innovation and teamwork that overcame all obstacles to reach the moon. It was in part driven by competition, and in part by scientific discovery,” he told the audience. “This was a peaceful solution to nuclear catastrophe and I hope we can come up with the same in the future,” he then added in answer to a question on the Cold War.
Return to Earth and mission(s) to Mars
After reaching the pinnacle of his career on the moon, Aldrin “lost nearly a decade in a downwards spiral” as he struggled with depression and alcoholism. “It took me a while to understand that what I am most passionate about, space, is where I should turn my efforts again,” he says.
Aldrin is now actively advocating missions to Mars, which are the topic of his upcoming book, to be published by the National Geographic. “I have always felt that Mars should be our next destination. I have been very vocal about it for a long time, but it finally feels like getting a bit closer to reality, for instance with Curiosity Rover, which I hope will raise the curiosity of young people on Earth.”
Aldrin also mentioned his work on the Aldrin Mars Cycler and the impact it could have, but going to Mars isn’t only about technology. “We need a plan, and we need a leader to state a public goal to reach within a specific time.” Aldrin already has a timing in mind for such a commitment to colonize Mars: the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing.
Such a plan will also require the same sort of momentum that drove the US to invest so heavily in the Apollo program. Asked whether it will take a new Cold War to make it happen during a press conference earlier today, Aldrin answered that it would rather take a recognition of the many benefits that space exploration has brought to the world.
“I strongly believe we need to get the world excited again about space exploration. [Going to Mars] will require public support and cooperation, and we need to make sure that the young generation is interested in studying the STEM subjects. We don’t want them to be just geeks, we need them to want to push boundaries,” he said, before delivering a final message to the Campus Party attendees: “You too can achieve great things; I’m the living proof that this can be done.”
– Campus Party paid for TNW’s transportation and accommodation during the event.
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