When Buzz Aldrin joined fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong in taking that "one giant leap for mankind" during the first moon walk in 1969, he had no idea just how far-ranging that giant step would be.
Thirty-two years later, Aldrin, 71, is still reaching for the stars, promoting space tourism and sending people to Mars.
He took time out from his official duties over the weekend to participate, along with Apollo 11 crewmate Michael Collins, in the Kenai River Classic. Aldrin said he had fun fishing in the Classic and has two king salmon, a 33- and 41-pounder, to show for his efforts.
"We're going to enjoy these (fillets) for the next several months," he said. "Given the opportunity, I would sure love to come back (and fish the Classic again)."
In the meantime, Aldrin, a West Point graduate and Korean War fighter pilot who went on to earn a doctorate in orbital space rendezvous at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will continue to push his vision for getting private citizens into space. The potential benefits, he said, are too huge to ignore.
"Tourism is a $4 trillion business worldwide," Aldrin said. "The benefits to be derived are so huge."
Tapping into that market with space travel will require a long-range plan, because of the prohibitive cost of building and operating spacecraft, Aldrin said. The government, through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, should take the lead.
"They need to define a course for the future that is affordable and has a visionary aspect to it," he said.
A necessary part of that vision would be developing a plan for sending people to Mars. Aldrin said he is doing his part, through his company Starcraft Enterprises, by working on the design of a reusable multi-stage rocket to replace the throw-away single-stage rockets now used.
Aldrin took his message to the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska Sunday afternoon, when he addressed the board of directors and told invited guests about the importance of the space program. His visit, made possible by the Kenai River Classic, also happened to coincide with the center's first anniversary.
"Everybody was very excited that (Aldrin) wanted to come and do a program with us," said Kathy Jewell, Challenger Center administrative assistant.
Aldrin, though, downplayed his own status as celebrity and national hero. He said he and his Apollo 11 crewmates were merely in the right place at the right time.
"We were very fortunate to come along when we did," he said. "We knew what we were doing was historical, but it was hard to know where it would fit in."
Aldrin said the passage of time since then has made the significance of the Apollo 11 mission more clear. However, he admitted that after some five years of trying to raise interest in his new concepts, he is not sure how much longer he'll continue to promote them.
"The Challenger Centers are working hard to keep people interested," he said. "But I'd like to see things gather some momentum in a year or two."
Even the astronauts who trained and worked with Aldrin in the Gemini and Apollo days have not jumped on the bandwagon of space tourism and a mission to Mars.
"I regret that that's the case," Aldrin said.
By promoting space tourism, Aldrin said, he hopes the public will get behind his ideas and push elected officials to fund the necessary long-range plan.
"I have developed and fine-tuned some very good ideas," Aldrin said. "If they're not accepted by the government, that's too bad. I can only point the way."
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