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Buzz Aldrin
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin addresses the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., with an Apollo-era picture of himself serving as a backdrop. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Nearly five decades after his first spaceflight, Buzz Aldrin is still thinking about the next giant leap to Mars. Today he shared his latest plan for sending astronauts to the Red Planet for regular tours of duty, starting in 2040.

“From that point, we will always have humans living there,” the 86-year-old Apollo 11 moonwalker told his audience at the 32nd Space Symposium here.

The mission architecture, which Aldrin calls Cycling Pathways to Mars, relies on transfer spacecraft that cycle perpetually between the Earth-moon system and Mars and its moons.

Aldrin got his Ph.D. in astronautics even before his first space mission, Gemini 12 in 1966, and helped work out the procedures for orbital rendezvous. His expertise on the subject earned him the nickname “Doctor Rendezvous.” For decades, he’s been working on the Cycler concept for decades as a way to jump-start Mars exploration and settlement.

The jump start hasn’t taken hold yet, and it’s not clear how far Aldrin will get with his updated plan.

Right now NASA is planning a gradual move to Mars, starting with flights beyond Earth orbit by its Orion crew capsule and heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. Those preliminary flights to cislunar space – that is, the region in the vicinity of the moon – would set the stage for longer-lasting missions to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

NASA still hasn’t filled out its mission architecture with well-defined designs for in-space habitats, landers and other hardware.  Aldrin suggests that Bigelow Aerospace’s expandable space modules and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo carriers could be combined with Orion capsules to fill in at least some of the missing puzzle pieces.

Aldrin’s plan calls for putting a nuclear reactor on the moon’s surface to provide the power required to turn lunar ice into fuel, air and water for the shuttling spacecraft.

He laid out a complicated array of missions that starts with the first round-the-moon test flight of the SLS rocket in 2018 and builds up to regular transits between Earth and Mars in the 2040s. The larger of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, could serve as a low-gravity staging zone for Mars operations, just as the moon could serve as a low-gravity staging zone for Earth. By 2050, there could be 50 people living and working on the Martian surface, he said.

Aldrin was mildly critical of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” for setting aside the issue of having a permanent presence on Mars.

“The design reference missions that NASA has come out with are visits,” he said. “They go to Mars in one synodic period, one conjunction, the best time to go. They come back the next conjunction. And Mars is empty. We can at least leave people there.”

Mars cycler plan
Buzz Aldrin’s plan for sending spacecraft to Mars calls for a complicated series of missions to send people and payloads to Mars.

For the uninitiated, the mission plan was sometimes hard to follow. “This is pretty complicated,” Aldrin acknowledged at one point, sparking a round of laughter from the audience.

But the biggest question about the plan is whether anyone will run with it.

Aldrin’s not the only one who’s trying to add detail to NASA’s Red Planet roadmap: Last year, the Planetary Society laid out a mission architecture that it said would put astronauts on Phobos in 2033 and on Mars in 2039.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, is hard at work on a Mars mission architecture that would take advantage of a giant rocket nicknamed the Mars Colonial Transporter to put people on the Red Planet as early as the mid-2020s. Musk is due to reveal that architecture in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Even if Aldrin’s cycler plan goes nowhere, his advocacy for Red Planet trips will at least keep up the pressure for going somewhere in deep space.

“Let me leave you with five words,” Aldrin told the crowd in Colorado. “I’ve been telling everyone I come across on this planet Earth, and perhaps those beyond, if you’re listening, ‘Get your ass to Mars!'”

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