July 12, 2009

Why We Should Leave The Moon Alone and Settle Mars Instead

Nasa astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, has urged the world to forget about returning to our nearest satellite and head to Mars instead.

'Why do we want to go to go back to the Moon?' he asked.

'Some nations want to go for prestige to say they are 'first' in space exploration in the 21st century and they want Nasa to compete with them. 'But there's no reason for us to go back. We can look at the effects of long-term missions in space by flying around comets, rather than setting up a base on the Moon. We're not going to launch any missions from there.' Instead Dr Aldrin said we should be setting our sights on the Red Planet, which would be a 'wonderful objective' for humanity. 'Mars is the only planet in the solar system which is nearly habitable. But we will really need settlers for that,' he said. He gave his whole-hearted support to the Russian 'Phobos-Grunt' mission, which plans to land a robot on Mars' moon Phobos, take soil samples and then return them to Earth in 2012.

He said the potato-shaped moon would be the perfect place from which to monitor and control robots that could build an infrastructure on the Martian surface, ready for the first human visitors. 'America helped to take the world to the moon 40 years ago and America certainly can help lead the world in the direction of Mars. All we need it determination, imagination and willingness,' he said. Dr Aldrin's comments run contrary to Nasa policy. The space agency plans to return to the Moon by 2020, although budget cuts make this date overly optimistic. The veteran spacewalker was speaking at the Southbank Centre in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

He also reminisced about his historic space mission to the Moon in July 1969 that made headlines around the world. 'The descent to the surface was the most complicated part of the mission, he said. 'There was quite a lot of concern about computer alerts in Houston and in the cockpit too. Then we came down and the site was full of boulders. Now this was not a landing site!' He added: 'It's hard to know what was going on in Neil's mind. But I wasn't going to shake him up. My role was to check all the instruments while Neil looked for a place to land. But I wasn't scared - what's the point? You're coming down either way.' Neil Armstrong flew the lunar module over the boulder field and the two astronauts landed with just 20 seconds of fuel remaining. 'We both looked at each other,' Dr Aldrin said.

'I remember patting his shoulder but Neil says we shook hands. Then we were busy checking for a leak, because if there was we had to go back up within two minutes, or wait two hours for Collins (Michael Collins, pilot of the command module) to come around again.

'I was also worried about the door slamming... I don't recall there being a handle on the outside!' The outspoken astronaut said one of the hardest questions he is asked is what it feels like to stand on the Moon. 'It's almost impossible to communicate,' he said. 'I can manufacturer an answer about being so proud but when I was there I was thinking about doing the job the best I could in the time. Then it was all over, except it wasn't as it is with you for the rest of your life.' Stepping on to the lunar landscape he described the Moon as 'magnificent desolation.'

'It was a magnificent achievement,' he explained. 'Yet there was the desolation of the environment, with no signs of life.' The astronaut battled depression and alcoholism on his return to Earth as he struggled to acclimatise. 'I had reached the pinnacle of my life (aged 39), but I didn't anticipate the impact this would have, or the notoriety it gave me,' he said. 'Until then I had a very structured life and was goal orientated. Then I couldn't find my next challenge. But even if I hadn't gone to the Moon, I think I would have run into the demon of alcoholism at some point.' Now aged 79, Aldrin has been sober for 30 years and married to his wife Lois for 23 years... and has no plans for retirement.
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