Book Review: 'Mission to Mars' by Buzz Aldrin and Leonard David

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 6:57pm

Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration

by Buzz Aldrin and Leonard David

National Geographic

Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, has spent the past 25 years as an evangelist for manned deep-space exploration. This has often put him at odds with Nasa. Since the moon landings, the US space agency has generally favoured sending robots and probes, such as Voyager 1, into space rather than human beings, as they are safer, cheaper, easier, and can carry out experiments equally well.

Consequently, today's astronauts and cosmonauts don't venture further than the International Space Station, which is in low earth orbit. Many scientists agree with Nasa's assessment: the scientific experiments and data collection can be done adequately by machines.

But for Aldrin, that misses the point. His view is that our destiny lies in the stars, and we should be getting on with the job that we started back in 1969, with the Apollo moon landing. Back then, it seemed conceivable that earth would have a permanent moonbase by the year 2000. But it's now 2013, no one has set foot on the moon since Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, was the last one back into the lunar module before it returned to earth in 1972.

Aldrin has no interest in returning to the moon. He doesn't think the US should engage in a new space race to the earth's satellite with China - which has expressed a desire to land men there - to win a race the Americans had already won in 1969. Aldrin thinks the US should be aiming further afield: Mars. This book, which is generally an easy read despite the copious science, says why and how.

Written with space journalist Leonard David, Mission to Mars - a nicely populist title reminiscent of a 1950s science-fiction movie - is a sprawling, scattershot book that nonetheless makes its point effectively. Aldrin looks at the political decisions that have shaped Nasa's programme of space exploration - the White House sets the agenda - the useful technology that exists, that which is in development, and the technology that needs to be developed.

The former astronaut also examines the contributions that privately funded space operations such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic can bring to the process.

Aldrin, who holds a doctorate in science in aeronautics from MIT, has developed a detailed plan to get to Mars. His goal is to establish a populated base there in 2035. The mission would proceed gradually, and would include test missions such as a landing on an asteroid and a manned mission to Phobos, one of Mars' moons.

Aldrin has also designed a method of propulsion called "cycling", a kind of continual long orbit that takes very little propulsion. A ship on the "Aldrin cycler" travels at high speed, and travellers have to catch up with it, and jump on. He admits that it still has a way to go, but says that when the details are worked out, it could get a ship to Mars in less than six months. Once on Mars, he says, the space travellers should stay there: his homesteading project envisages the establishment of a permanent settlement, not a return trip.

Aldrin is a highly respected, although not necessarily well-loved, figure on the space scene. As the second man on the moon, he has the power to make presidents listen to his ideas. But he exists more as a provocateur than a policy maker, and his ideas are often at odds with those at Nasa. But Mars has leaped into the popular consciousness over the past five years with the idea that it might support, or have supported, life. It also has the conditions that could, with the right equipment, support human life. So it is likely that Aldrin's dream of a mission to Mars will eventually take place.