Forget Wall St and reach for the stars

By Grant Bradley

Forty-one years ago Buzz Aldrin would have covered the distance from Los Angeles to Auckland in 15 minutes aboard Apollo 11.

Next week he faces a far more sedate 12-hour trip travelling around 900km/h rather than the 41,000km/h he did on his way to the moon, as he flies in for a conference where he is a keynote speaker.

Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon and one of just a dozen to do so, says the imperative for the stunning technological advances of the Apollo mission no longer exists.

During the 1960s the United States spent US$24 billion (US$141 billion in today's dollars) to put men on the moon while locked in a desperate space race.

"We shifted our focus from the pioneering with a large national commitment and a technology demonstration race between the US and the Soviet Union.

"That was clearly a motivating, driving issue in taking on that task - we haven't had that imperative since then, so it's a matter of catching up with those spectacular achievements," he said from his Los Angeles home.

The Saturn V rocket that blasted men to the moon was the most powerful machine ever built - a volatile mix of three million kilograms of propellants.

"We used the highest performance mix of hydrogen and oxygen in the Apollo programme, and there isn't much more to be squeezed out of rocket performance. We did so much so soon."

Now the US space programme is in limbo - Aldrin was listening to Congressional hearings on its future before a conference call on Friday.

He remains an advocate of returning people to deep space.

Mars is the best bet as a refuge for humans if something "highly improbable" happens to Earth.

Mars missions should not be fleeting, they're just not economic, he says. And the US at least should forget the moon. He described its "magnificent desolation" when he first stepped off the Eagle lander, and that's how he still regards it - inhospitable.

He was christened Edwin but was forever known as Buzz after his younger sister pronounced Brother - the name given him by older sisters - Buzzer. He turned 80 in January but remains active on the speaking circuit.

You can follow him on twitter, he's rapped with Snoop Dog (he wished he'd looked better on video) and is a YouTube star, thumping a film maker who claims the lunar missions were hoaxes.

He's coming to New Zealand for a telecommunications conference and recounts communications glitches in the critical landing approach by Eagle.

"We were coming around the corner of the moon when we started powered descent and we needed good communications and tracking to update the computer knowledge of where we were and establishing that communication was not too good.

"Then we had some computer alarms that we had to pay attention to because we didn't have the information to tell us what the problem was, and the people back in Houston had to figure out what the problem was and say it was okay to continue."

But a call from US President Richard Nixon in the White House came through loud and clear, although it took Aldrin by surprise.

"He was speaking to me, too, but I didn't know that was going to be happening so I didn't have any choice phrases."

Aldrin has a clear message for those planning a career.

"I want to keep people inspired to advance technology and the youth to be inspired in the lagging disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math."

The material rewards may be quicker in finance but "they're not quite as satisfying".


* Planet 2010, SkyCity, Auckland. March 12-13

* Keynote speaker: Buzz Aldrin, astronaut.

* Showcase for technology and latest innovations. Public admission on day two.

* Run by Telecommunications Industry Group.


- NZ Herald

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