Civilians in Orbit – Buzz Aldrin's Hope

Posted on Monday, September 20, 2021
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles

In the late 1990s, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke to a class I was teaching. His message was simple. While the only Americans in space had been NASA astronauts, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, or Shuttle, one-day ordinary people – civilians riding as tourists – would orbit. He hoped to see it.

Reality is even more poignant, as a quick search of speeches, articles, and appearances by Dr. Aldrin – himself a Sc.D. in astronautical engineering from MIT – reveals. Over the course of two decades, Dr. Aldrin was a pioneer in promoting, believing possible, encouraging support for “space tourism.”

Interestingly, long before he walked on the Moon with Neil Armstrong in 1969, before orbiting in Gemini 12 with Jim Lovell in 1966, Aldrin was thinking out of the box.

At MIT, he originated thinking on orbital rendezvous mechanics, central for rendezvous in lunar orbit, used in Apollo missions. Before his successful Gemini spacewalks, he helped perfect neutral buoyancy training in a NASA pool, perfect simulation for space, a practice that became standard.

In effect, Buzz has always been slightly ahead of the curve, calm beyond expectation, decorated Korean War fighter pilot, and an intellectual willing to accept criticism for being different, a bit nerdy.

His sense of humor is self-deprecating, another feature that endears him to hundreds of millions. He was the one who remarked he was stepping down the LEM ladder after Armstrong, “being careful not to lock the door behind” him, noted they appeared to be “first on the runway” when leaving the Moon.

Buzz is, even today – ready with a chuckle at life’s ironies – at peace with himself and the pace of life, even if not on a launchpad. He is ready to admit modern engineering is getting beyond his expertise, yet thrilled to see it and to support human space flight – good news for American space leadership.

Speaking to a class of students in the 1990s, the pioneering Moonwalker predicted reusable spacecraft, launched by the private sector, would become standard. He predicted they would orbit, ending NASA’s monopoly on space, opening an era of “space tourism,” his term for civilian pleasure trips into space.

If Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein had science fiction books, Buzz managed to write – from personal experience in space and on the Moon – science fact and science fiction. He then turned to inspire younger Americans with books on how they might get to space.

Among his predictions, launch costs would fall, rockets and designs proliferate, government training becomes unnecessary, enthusiasm grows for space travel, and in time mankind would reach into the heavens with purpose, no need for government push.

His hope was that he might live to see that day, civilians inspired to orbit Earth and return safely – then perhaps cast their eyes higher still – to the Moon, return flights to that magical orb, on to Mars.

Incredibly, Buzz and all of us have just witnessed a civilian crew take off, orbit Earth, and return safely – the first real, unvarnished, privately engineered, orbital example of “space tourism,” the idea on which Buzz wrote and spoke more than two decades ago.

On watching the SpaceX Inspiration4 flight launch, crew orbit, and return safely, Buzz must have thought again about how life works. You imagine something, you dream about it, work night and day for it, pay no attention to critics, those who say it cannot happen, or goal too big, or distance too far – and then you make it happen, and ponder having done so.

Congratulations to all those who made this latest human space flight mission, a first in many regards, a true success – and one that benefits St. Jude’s, success of its own. Congratulations to Dr. Buzz Aldrin for predicting and quietly cheering this success. And congratulations to America – to all Americans who still share, treasure, and pursue the American Dream here on Earth and out there…in space. Onward!