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Welcome to the Real Space Age

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I visited Aldrin a few weeks after the announcement in his tenth-floor apartment on a high point of Wilshire Boulevard, a place he calls Mission Control. The apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of Los Angeles, but aside from some large gray couches and a white baby grand piano, it was mostly empty. (He was waiting for Lois, whom he’d sued, to return most of his memorabilia.) When I arrived, Aldrin was in the other room talking loudly on the phone with Mike Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who’d hovered above the moon in the command module while he and Armstrong made their descent. He greeted me and showed me a picture on his iPhone of his young girlfriend, then we had lunch and talked.

Aldrin, 83, maintains a punishing schedule. He had just returned from a trip to London and was soon to leave for New York and again for Europe. He is involved in all kinds of ventures, but none is as important to him as the conquest of Mars, which he believes must be colonized. His most recent book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, proposes a series of constant cycling orbits around Earth, the moon, and Mars and its moon Phobos. It is a framework rooted in manned spaceflight’s increasing privatization, which he sees as its only viable future.

Indeed, though he has long been dismissed by his peers as an embarrassment, Aldrin’s vision of the future has turned out to be remarkably prescient. He’s been a vocal critic of NASA, which he believes suffers from “monstrous inefficiency” and is averse to contrary thinking. He’s publicly endorsed Obama’s decision to abandon explicit plans to send astronauts to the moon and has long found the obsession with returning there overblown. “I felt that my ideas were not being accepted by a lot of contemporaries who felt that their life was going to the moon, and they wanted to see more attention paid to that,” he told me. “But when it looked like other nations—China—were making serious statements about going to the moon, I didn’t see why we would want to do that in competition with them.”

Unlike many of the Apollo generation, Aldrin sees himself as just a person who happened to have been given a job. And so rather than argue for space’s exceptionalism and exclusivity, he has advocated for others to go—artists, writers, singers. In the eighties, he proposed a sweepstakes to build enthusiasm and help foment the private industry. Later this year, he has a video game coming out, Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, based on his Mars cycling-orbit ideas. He showed me drawings of the spacecraft he’d designed on his iPad.

He is a man of almost boundless energy who rarely turns down an endorsement opportunity or dinner invitation (we met during Oscars weekend, and he was actively scouring for an after-party to attend). But he does have standards. He declined an endorsement deal for a walking cane that rights itself if dropped—he has no interest in speaking to an audience his age. The Axe deal, by contrast, made so much sense. He believes in XCOR and its Lynx. He wants, desperately, to give more people the experience he has had. Plus, he said, Axe has the exact demographic he was looking for: young people. He imagines a reality show that could generate millions of dollars in revenue to pay the much more significant cost of getting people into orbital flight.

We sat at his kitchen table eating Cobb salads, Aldrin talking in dense paragraphs, his iPhone beeping and ringing relentlessly. One of his two assistants was mapping the route to the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey, where he was taking a date to a black-tie event that evening. Sunset was coming, the sky reddening. Out the window, a power plant to the south was emitting streams of steam that broke into clouds; planes took off from LAX like tiny elongated bullets gliding in slow motion over the Pacific. A pale, gibbous moon hung over the city. Going there, he said, was “an event that took place and I was a participant in it and it carries a lot of things over that I can’t escape from, for better or worse, and I might as well make use of it.” But he has moved on. “Now, as I look at the future,” he said, “Mars is not just another destination.” Establishing a permanent settlement there will be “one of the biggest things humans have ever achieved,” many times more significant than his trip. The people who will make that happen, “they’re going to be pioneers, pilgrims.”

In the past three months: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule completed its second successful rendezvous with the International Space Station, ahead of schedule and under budget. ISS commander Chris Hadfield entranced the world beneath him with his music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which he covers while floating against a bank of windows. Jeff Bezos resurrected from the ocean’s depths some of the jettisoned rocketry from the Apollo missions. Obama announced the acceleration of his space policy, with plans to lasso an asteroid, drag it into the moon’s orbit, and send astronauts to explore it within eight years. Dennis Tito, a 72-year-old former NASA engineer who, in 2001, became the first civilian to buy a ride from the Russians to the space station, announced the creation of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which intends to partner with NASA and private companies to send two explorers on a 501-day mission to fly by Mars in 2018. (His efforts are more philanthropic than commercial: “I’m going to be a lot poorer,” Tito told me. “My grand­children, and a lot of people’s grandchildren, will be a lot richer in spirit.”) And three weeks ago, Virgin Galactic made good on its promise, dropping its rocket engine into its SpaceShipTwo and taking off from the scrub desert of its test facility. At 47,000 feet, the vehicle successfully detached from the mother ship and shot forward. Watching the successful test launch, Branson told me, he was moved to tears. He expects his family’s flight to be imminent: “I think we’ll be up and away by the end of the year.”


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