The next giant leap for space exploration

A crescent moon rises over the cusp of the Earth’s atmosphere in this picture by astronaut Koichi Wakata onboard the International Space Station. (NASA via Reuters)
A crescent moon rises over the cusp of the Earth’s atmosphere in this picture by astronaut Koichi Wakata onboard the International Space Station. (NASA via Reuters)

For many years, the United States has been spending billions of dollars on human spaceflight exploration. However, we have lacked a clear commitment to a program to break the pattern of humans simply circling Earth. It’s time to sojourn outward and have America soar beyond low Earth orbit.

When I peer into the future, I see Cycling Pathways to Occupy Mars — a comprehensive and immediate plan for human spaceflight. The overall objectives of this plan are to sequentially evolve international contributions of shared exploration beyond low Earth orbit and toward international crew landings on Mars by 2040. This plan can grow to enable a permanent settlement on the Red Planet to be up and operating in the following years and decades.

Embarking on this pathway is admittedly an epic leap. But it is also offers a legacy unparalleled in human achievement and progress. I’ve put my increasing dedication behind this concept — a plan that I am sponsoring in a distinct way.

Last year, I formalized the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute with the Florida Institute of Technology, established with the express goal of developing architectures, technologies and plans that support human space exploration and development. Our joint task is to advance the settlement of Mars through research. The proposed architecture I’m advocating establishes pathways of progressive international missions in low Earth orbit and cis-lunar space (the void between the moon and the Earth), an asteroid flyby, exploration of Venus and then forward to Phobos — one of Mars’s moons. These step-by-step moves to gain our space legs will ultimately lead to initial human landings and eventual permanence of humankind on the surface of the Red Planet.

Yes, I know, that’s a tall order. But not impossible if you agree that no dream is too high for those with their eyes in the sky! My vision has long been that our ventures in space double as a challenge to the human spirit. They underscore our internal and eternal drive to explore the unknown.

Thus, taking our trajectory deeper into space is about more than just the United States. We must explore our solar system with the entire community of current and future space-faring nations.

To this point, China should be a part of a global space outreach, as should the 16 nations that currently participate in the International Space Station. We should also look to include the emerging space-faring countries, such as India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Nothing will do more to promote international understanding, particularly when it comes to developing norms of behavior in space.

Those norms of behavior will be critical not only during government-backed activities, but also for emerging entrepreneurial advancements. The interest of private groups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Robert Bigelow’s space habitats is a healthy sign of things to come. Public and private space partnerships, as well as a healthy dose of competition, will shape the 21st century space agenda for the benefit of all — as long as we seek a common, unified goal of spurring humanity to utilize and explore space together.

But allowing private individuals to profit from the moon’s resources means lunar exploration may no longer be the domain of governmental agencies alone. With projects like the Google Lunar XPrize, commercial organizations are creating business plans and attracting investment to create low-cost, regular and reliable access to the moon and its resources — within the next few years and into the future. Resource-rich asteroids are also objects of affection for several profit-seeking space enterprises. Mulling over international recognition of space property rights is already a front-burner issue for space lawyers.

And some still say, “If we can go to the moon, why don’t we go to the moon?”

Going back to the moon and planting boots on Mars don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I am convinced that the global community must develop a unified program that develops commerce, science and technology on the moon. Moreover, that program is needed to support the prospect of permanence on Mars.

I have been there — standing on the magnificently desolate moon back in July 1969. Yet the United States should not find itself stuck in place. Rather, it should continue to move forward, as the natural leader of a global program toward humanity’s permanence on Mars.

I consider myself a global statesman for space. Journeying across this planet from country to country, I sense a strong and vibrant calling for a meaningful, vision-focused space agenda. There’s a countdown underway, an ideal time in our history to seize the moment, to seek new horizons and to turn all of us into horizon hunters.

Buzz Aldrin, an Apollo 11 moonwalker, holds a doctoral degree in astronautics and continues to wield influence as an international advocate of space science and planetary exploration.

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