Space exploration: Life on Mars

Jim Bell welcomes a detailed blueprint for colonizing the red planet from Apollo 11 veteran Buzz Aldrin.

Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration

National Geographic Society: 2013. 272 pp. $26 (£17.99) 9781426210174 | ISBN: 978-1-4262-1017-4

For many, our exploration of the cosmos seems to hinge on grand and singular theoretical observations and technological achievements such as those of Galileo and Einstein. We are fascinated by paradigm-shifting discoveries and personal stories — the oppressed astronomer, the quirky professor. Yet in the arena of global science and engineering, it often takes the less flashy, more mundane development of good policy and follow-on infrastructure to maintain and sustain those changes, and to enable even more discoveries.

In Mission to Mars, celestial-mechanics expert and Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin ('Buzz') Aldrin, with space journalist Leonard David, argues that achieving the next great singular goal in space exploration — a sustained campaign to explore and ultimately settle Mars — will require a healthy dose of such pragmatism. The United States will, they say, need both significant advances in its space transport infrastructure and considerable changes in space policy.

An artist's impression of a future mission to the red planet. Credit: NASA/PAT RAWLINGS, SAIC

Ever since his historic 1969 lunar-landing mission, Aldrin has been a passionate and outspoken advocate for continued US leadership in space exploration. Calling the space shuttle programme “bad judgment” because it placed humans and cargo together, and a second race to the Moon “a dead end” in terms of either a commercial or a scientific pay-off, here Aldrin plants his flag in the middle of NASA's ongoing identity crisis about the future of crewed space missions. He draws a line in the exosphere, defining low-Earth orbit and even the Moon as the realm of private enterprise and commercial space development. He goes on to write that “America's space program should help other nations achieve what we have already done”, and echoes the controversial call to bring both China and India in as International Space Station partners.

These and other recommendations from one of America's first moonwalkers make Mission to Mars more than just a plea for exploration of the red planet. Aldrin outlines what he calls his “Unified Space Vision”, which he believes is needed to enable humanity to establish permanent settlements beyond Earth. Some of its crucial elements would be an independent think tank to advise government, industry and the public on space issues, an international lunar-development authority to oversee the eventual economic exploitation of the Moon, and a planetary-defence component to advance our understanding of the science and mitigation strategies for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids.

Perhaps Aldrin's most passionate call, however, is for the development of a fully reusable interplanetary transport infrastructure between Earth and Mars. This would break through the current 'reusability barricade' for space travel, an achievement that was visualized for the space shuttle, but never fully realized. A key advance would be to implement Aldrin's long-standing idea of 'cycler' spacecraft: ferries set in motion on permanent looping trajectories around the gravitational orbits of Earth and Mars (or other staging destinations, such as the Martian moons). There are many technical issues that limit such a concept: for example, passengers to and from these destinations would have to use some sort of shuttlecraft to catch up with the non-stop, high-velocity cyclers. But Aldrin rightly points out that without the infrastructure in place for transportation, as well as for essential long-term resources such as fuel, food and water, we will continue to make only small steps, rather than the next giant leaps, in our exploration of the worlds around us.

I was perhaps most struck by Aldrin's rejection of the idea of returning to the Moon before any foray to Mars. “Don't put any more NASA astronauts on the Moon!” he implores. Indeed, his philosophy is consistent with the current space policy of President Barack Obama's administration, which includes NASA's recently announced idea to attempt to capture a small near-Earth asteroid. This mission is poorly defined at present, but if eventually implemented it could be consistent with Aldrin's call for testing new deep-space rocket components, and for potential scientific and planetary-defence research on near-Earth asteroids. Some of Aldrin's ideas may be having an impact at the highest levels.

We idolize aviation pioneers and their many 'firsts', but take for granted today's global air-transport infrastructure predicated on their achievements. Even the Global Positioning System can be traced back directly to the ventures of NASA and other space agencies. Buzz Aldrin doesn't want us to forget earlier heroic achievements. But he desperately wants us to get to work on the infrastructure and policies needed to make humanity a multi-planet species with an interplanetary economy.

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Bell, J. Space exploration: Life on Mars. Nature 497, 314–315 (2013).

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