Let it not be said, aging wines or American astronauts lose their power to captivate, motivate or inspire. Apollo 11’s last living moonwalker, Buzz Aldrin – now 89 – held a room rapt with personal stories, historic references and vision this weekend. Speaking at the International Academy of Astronautics, he was a tour de force.
What did he do? First, he directed the audience to an American political legend distinguished by daring, Theodore Roosevelt. TR was the first president to fly, ride a submarine and car, use a telephone. The Panama Canal was impossible; he said “Bully!” and built it. TR imagined the future, and made it happen.
Aldrin quoted from TR’s “Man in the Arena” speech, particularly appropriate now. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
No. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause…”
And this: “…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
From this moonwalker, the words echoed. Aldrin’s point was clear. In effect, where is our daring today? Where is our focus on big goals, meaningful advances, our vision? “Historically, America has always dared greatly – and been rewarded for our daring,” he reminded the audience.
Yes, exploration “did not come without sacrifice, including loss of astronauts, time and resources,” but that is the price of success. “America was not only first …to land men on the moon,” but “those investments in daring returned everything from satellite communications to artificial limbs, fire equipment and solar cells to the insulin pump, Velcro to scratch-resistant contact lenses, plastics and iPhones to shock-absorbent running shoes.”
“The polymers in our spacesuits today save lives in fire resistant clothing for firefighters, while space-based water filtration technology saves lives in remote places around the earth,” and we enjoy “wireless headsets, smoke detectors, freeze-dried foods, tiny cameras, air purifiers, memory foam, ear thermometers, airplane de-icing and endless computer innovations.” Because we dared.
Aldrin then did what leaders do. He stopped admiring the problem, offered a vision. He believes we may be “on the cusp of another era of daring,” which will require four elements.
First, we must “start thinking more about public-private partnerships” within America, “getting daring in the public sector to match daring in the private sector…We get more done when we work together.”
Second, “we need to think more internationally – creating synergies in space at the international level,” leading an international “coalition” of “top international space agencies – including America, Europe, Russia, China and perhaps …top private sector leaders.” Summing, “synergies take leadership and effort … which boils down to daring.”
Third, America needs to “refocus on what works and on hard goals – more efficient ways to get into space, to the moon and Mars, not allowing waste, profiteering or ego to get in the way of achievement.”
“Apollo worked” because we had a mission, vision and commitment. “With the Soviets nipping at our heels, we got there first,” adding “we did not do that to make money, but to achieve a national goal.”
Sounding like Eisenhower, Aldrin opined: “The military-industrial-space complex often acts on the notion that more spending is better, more profit is the goal, and more time is just fine.”
Aldrin firmly disagreed. “Those assumptions are all three wrong – efficiency is better than just throwing more money and infrastructure at space; profit is fine and a valuable motivator, but it is not the motivation that got us to the moon – that was a combination of national security, national pride and higher purpose.”
“Finally, time does matter. At almost 90, I can tell you – time is a precious resource, and it is for our nation. We have spent a lot of it over the past forty years on wishful thinking. I think if you had every past moon walker and Apollo astronaut here today – they, we would all say: Enough wishful thinking – let’s get back to action, high national purpose, the moon and Mars.”
As if these observations were not enough, Aldrin added: “Fourth … we need to think more about space as the future,” working on “unanswered questions… from life support, radiation and reentry speeds returning from Mars, to how we establish a simple, cost-efficient, reusable and increasingly routine infrastructure for human permanence on the moon, Mars and in space – and then efficient, cycling spacecrafts … a ‘trans way’ to and from established, inhabited destinations in space.”
Now that is vision, and one reason he set up his Human Space Flight Institute – to press the vision academically, through engineering, and to implementation. He ended with a question. “Where does that leave us?”
He offered his own answer, noting if TR were alive, he might want to be the first president to fly in space. Practically, “TR would expect a great deal of this great nation … and of us here today … which is why we should start to expect more of ourselves – and make it happen.”
From a decorated Korean War fighter pilot, Gemini spacewalker, Apollo 11 moonwalker, and explorer with a PhD in astronautical engineering from MIT, those are words that carry weight. Aldrin is saying what we know: America is at her best – we are at our best – when we lean forward, take risks, believe in the future – and embrace daring. Aldrin thinks it is time. Shall we get on with it?