“There has to be a better way of doing things. And I think I’ve found it.”
Just after Memorial Day this year, I began talking regularly with the pilot of the first spacecraft to land on the Moon. We had spoken before, but this was different—it seemed urgent. Every week or two, Buzz Aldrin would call to discuss his frustration with the state of NASA and his concerns about the looming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing without a lack of discernible progress to get back.
Even at 89, Aldrin remains remarkably engaged in the aerospace community, often showing up to meetings and conferences unannounced. Aldrin asks questions. He talks to the principals. In the last two years, the aerospace legend has been to the White House for major space announcements by President Trump, served as an adviser to the National Space Council, and supported the White House goal of returning to the Moon by 2024.
But what NASA has been doing to get back there, for the better part of two decades, just hasn’t been working. President Bush directed NASA back to the Moon more than 15 years ago, and in one form or another, NASA has been spending billions of dollars each year to build a big, heavy spacecraft and a bigger, much heavier rocket as the foundation for such a return. Along the way, NASA has enriched a half-dozen large aerospace contractors and kept Congress happy. But the space agency still can’t even launch its own astronauts into low-Earth orbit, let alone deep space or the Moon.
“I’ve been going over this in my mind,” Aldrin told Ars “We’ve been fumbling around for a long, long time. There has to be a better way of doing things. And I think I’ve found it.”
He realizes that, with a big Apollo anniversary on July 20, this may be one of his last chances to change things. You only hit a Golden Anniversary once, and then it’s gone. And soon, pretty quickly, so are you. So Buzz Aldrin would like to grab the spotlight at this moment, and in the process he hopes to finally get NASA moving forward. He wants NASA to stop trying to repeat the Apollo program of yesteryear and embrace the future of spaceflight.
So as we talked in late May and June, I simply took notes. Aldrin was not speaking to me, after all, he was trying to speak to the world.
Only a few left
Only a dozen humans have ever stepped out of a spacecraft and onto the surface of another world, and two-thirds of them are gone now. Aldrin’s partner on Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, died in 2012. Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Jim Irwin, John Young, and Gene Cernan have all gone away, too. Most died incredulous—how, they wondered, had the powerful legacy they left behind dissipated like a rocket’s contrail, scattered in the wind?
Of those still left to us, Aldrin is the oldest. Dave Scott, Charlie Duke, and Harrison Schmitt are all in their mid-80s. There is no guarantee any of them will be alive for the 60th anniversary of Apollo 11.
To its credit, the Trump administration has injected NASA with a sense of urgency by setting the 2024 landing goal. In response to this, NASA has proposed the Artemis program, a campaign of 37 launches that culminates with the beginnings of a lunar base in a decade. While there are serious questions about the political saliency of this plan, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is more concerned about the technical problems.
NASA has spent $50 billion building the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and related exploration vehicles over the past 15 years. Orion is a capable deep space capsule, but it is also massive, weighing 26 tons along with its service module and large heat shield. For every Artemis mission, NASA proposes to launch this mass all the way to the Moon and back. At least Orion is reusable; by contrast the large, expendable SLS rocket will cost more than $1.5 billion per flight and require a standing army of contractors just to keep supply lines open for, at most, a single mission per year.
For all of the time and money invested in SLS and Orion, these vehicles lack the energy to fly a mission into low lunar orbit and back. Indeed, the engine powering Orion’s service module has less than one-third of the thrust of the Apollo propulsion system that flew Aldrin to the Moon in 1969. This is a major reason NASA intends to build a Lunar Gateway—a small space station—in a distant orbit around the Moon. From there, the Gateway will come no closer than 1,000km to the lunar surface and spend most of its seven-day orbit much farther away.
“One thing that surprises me is the lack of performance,” Aldrin said, discussing these vehicles NASA has spent so long developing. “It forces NASA into this weird orbit. And how long is SLS going to last until Blue Origin or SpaceX replaces it? Not long. How long is that heavy Orion spacecraft, with an under-powered European service module, going to hang around in the inventory? Not long.”
Sources: • Ars Technica
Featured Image: Hubert Vestil/Getty Images