Q&A: Buzz Aldrin Discusses His Vision for Mars

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin wants humans to visit Mars—and stay there.

Editor's Note: National Geographic is bringing together astronaut Buzz Aldrin and mountaineer Conrad Anker for a Google+ Hangout on Monday, May 20, at 2 p.m. ET (7 p.m. UTC).

After his July 1969 history-making role on Apollo 11the first human expedition to the moonBuzz Aldrin has continued to seek out new frontiers.

Aldrin has written seven books, produced computer games, and even recorded a rap song with Snoop Dogg. A tireless advocate for human space travel, the former astronaut developed the Aldrin Cycler, a system that allows spacecraft to orbit continually between Mars and Earth, providing regular transportation between the two planets.

In his newest book, "Mission to Mars," Aldrin lays out a comprehensive plan that would lead to permanent human settlements on Mars in the next 25 years. National Geographic magazine's Bill Douthitt spoke with Aldrin about the future of space travel.

You've done everything from walking on the moon to Dancing With the Stars and quite a few things in between. What interests you now?

It's the challenge to try and communicate thoughts that I believe have merit to them, that could make things easier for the nation to execute a good pathway to space in the future. Plus a little scuba diving.

There doesn't seem to be a strong public interest in space. Why is that?

Nobody is flying right now. If another shuttle launch took place, people probably wouldn't get all that fascinated with it. But if you were on the shuttle you would. Or if you were right there hearing the noise and the shock waves and sonic booms and seeing the flash of the engines lighting up. But not everyone can witness that. And we're not doing it anymore.

Your new book talks about the private sector in space-companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Will they succeed?

We miscalculated when a replacement for the shuttle will be ready. I don't think we thought that we'd be sitting around with nothing in sight except maybe the commercial launchers. SpaceX might be able to take people up to the space station in a couple of years, maybe.

How can we develop the kind of long-term commitment needed for permanence in space?

There should be an international lunar base. That is certainly doable. Leading activities at the moon puts us in a leadership role to bring other nations together. Not so that we can show them how much better we arenot at all! We can help other nations do things that they want to do.

The way I see it, what is going to come out of the moon activities is a respect for U.S. leadership. The more joint activity at the moon we have, I think the more peaceful relations we'll have. Maybe that'll filter down through the atmosphere and motivate people to be less aggressive. Human rights problems will always exist for years to come, but maybe they'll lessen somewhat.

Robots are exploring Mars now. Why do we need humans?

What we're doing on Mars is remarkable for the distance involved, in keeping track of what we tell [rovers like Curiosity] to do, in monitoring what it does. We've demonstrated we know how to do that quite well on Mars with the big disadvantage of slow action. Instead of five years to do what a couple of rovers did, it could be done in one week if we had intelligence there to make corrections.

You've talked about fostering a spirit of cooperation among nations on the moon. Is that cooperation the reason to go to Mars?

No, it's for the advancement of the human race. We went to the moon as a prestige challenge to ourselves and to the Soviet Union. It didn't result in anything permanent. We got information out of it. We got experience in exploration. But we didn't develop what we put there. There certainly wasn't any commercial benefit.

A leader on Earth who sets into motion the permanent occupancy of another planetthat is a major advance in human civilization. We should encourage him or her to do that. We ought to remind him or her how memorable his or her legacy will be, thousands of years from now.

Your book explores the idea that human trips to Mars would be permanent trips. People wouldn't just go and come backthey'd stay.

My concern was, if we went there and came backa typical missionwe will have demonstrated the ability to go to Mars to the Congress. Period. They'll then say, "Let's cancel the program and spend the money elsewhere." And the whole effort would be fruitless in terms of an investment.

Two unchangeable things will limit the buildup of people on Mars. You can only send people there every 26 months [when the positions of Mars and Earth permit a shorter, more efficient trip]. And there's a limit to the size of the spacecraft that we can get there. I don't think we're going to build a 50-person spacecraft or a 100-person spacecraft.

We'll send one crew to Mars, but then we'll keep them there, and send another crew. Otherwise, we're not building up to a critical mass to get the job done. You can't put the burden on just a few people. I think we have the ability [on Mars] to raise a civilization that will be very clear thinking and most logical.

So if you have humans staying on Mars, you're not going to abandon them?

That's a piece of insurance. If you build and put money into a cycling system [spacecraft on continuous orbits between Mars and Earth], why throw it away? Use it! It's a pathway to sustainability.

I read that Apollo 11 almost wasn't the first mission to land on the moon.

You must have read something that leaked out recently. There was a weight problem with the LM-5 [the lunar lander for Apollo 11], and it was originally not scheduled to be a lander. So the first landing would not have been in July 1969 but in October. That meant probably a different crew. I think it's fascinating. It certainly would have changed my life.