Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr – Dr. Rendezvous 

By Henry M. Holden 

L-R Buzz Aldrin and James Lovell standing on Gemini 12 capsule. (NASA Photo)

While there have been 12 astronauts who walked on the Moon, two names are instantly recognizable; the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, and Buzz Aldrin, who followed Armstrong down the ladder of the Lunar Module Eagle, in 1969. But, of all the astronauts who walked on the Moon, none has become more famous than Aldrin.

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. was born January 20, 1930, and raised in Montclair N.J.. He is a former astronaut, and graduated from West Point, third in his class, with a mechanical engineering degree. He flew 66 combat missions in F-86 Sabre jets in Korea and shot down two Russian-built Mig-15 airplanes and won the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross. 

At the age of 80, Aldrin made news with his performance on Dancing with the Stars.  But long before he danced with the stars, he was the inspiration for Disney’s Buzz Lightyear.

In January 1963, six-and-a-half years before the first Moon landing, Aldrin earned a degree of Doctor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for his 311-page thesis “Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous,” earning Aldrin the sobriquet “Dr. Rendezvous” among his peers. At the time he was a Major in the U.S. Air Force and had yet to be selected as an astronaut. The Mercury Program was winding down, and Project Gemini, with its explicit requirement for testing rendezvous in space was ramping up. Aldrin specifically mentions the Gemini Program in an abstract of his thesis.

Early on, Aldrin did not believe that Gemini program was using the astronauts effectively to work outside space vehicle. “We used microgravity training and flights in parabolic airplanes. But that did not improve the situation. I was a certified nine-year SCUBA diver and understand that underwater simulates weightlessness. I introduced it to NASA, and they agreed to give it a try. It worked; our EVAs became very productive.”

Before that he served as the Apollo 11 lunar module pilot, in 1966, he performed three periods of extravehicular activity (EVA) totaling five hours, 30-minutes aboard Gemini 12. 

On May 25, 1962, President John F. Kennedy prompted Americans to “… choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  

On July 17, 1969, thousands converged on the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, and millions tuned in to watch live television. Soon, the ground began shaking as a small spacecraft attached to the giant Saturn V rocket several hundred feet tall started lifting off. It was quickly propelled to reach an orbital speed of 18,000 miles per hour. Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong were on their way to a historic first landing on the Moon.

At 4:17 pm, July 20, 1969, time stood still throughout the world. Neil Armstrong announced to the world “The Eagle has landed.” The Eagle Luner Module carried “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the third astronaut, Michael Collins, remained aloft to pilot the Apollo 11 spacecraft. 

After Aldrin returned to Earth he went on a speaking tour. “We did lots of parades, 25 cities in 40 days.” “What do I do next?” he thought. Despite reaching the peak of his fame and career before the age of 40, Aldrin continued to work in the field and has been one of the most effective advocates of further space travel, particularly to Mars.

His wife said, “All the pressures and expectations were too much. He crashed and burned as the expression goes. It was a combination of depression which leads to alcoholism. But he did get help, and in 2023 he celebrated 37 years of sobriety.” 

In May of 2016, Aldrin attended the “Humans to Mars 2016” conference. In his remarks, Aldrin said NASA should make essential changes to the approach it has used since the 1960s. He feels NASA should get out of the business of designing and managing the development of its own rockets and spacecraft. He critiqued the space Launch System (SLS) vehicle, saying it was a government design, based on 1970s technology, that went into the space shuttle program. “It competes with the private sector,” Aldrin said. “I thought most of us were in the process of learning that the government shouldn’t do that.”

Aldrin was referring to efforts by SpaceX to develop the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has a launch capacity of 54 metric tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO). The SLS will have an initial capacity of 70 metric tons, and independent estimates suggest the SLS will cost more than the Falcon Heavy for each launch by at least a factor of 10.

Gemini XII marked a successful conclusion of the Gemini program, achieving the last of its goals by successfully demonstrating that astronauts can effectively work outside a spacecraft. This was instrumental in paving the way for the Apollo program to achieve its goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. 

Aldrin recalls, “With Gemini 12’s landing there was an unequivocal realization, by all astronauts, and NASA itself: that we had only three years left to accomplish Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. 

“Yes, Jim and I were the link. They prepared us for the Apollo missions to the moon, but we still had major work to do.”

By early 1969, NASA made it clear the agency intended to land astronauts on the moon in July. 

The month leading up to Apollo 11’s success highlighted just how many people were involved in the mission. In fact, over 400,000 people worked behind the scenes on just the Apollo 11 mission. From engineers, scientists, administrators, cleaning crews and more, it took an enormous collaborative effort to complete this seemingly impossible task. 

That work paid off on July 20, 1969, when an estimated 600 million people around the globe sat, glued to their television sets to watch the crew’s historic first steps on the moon. 

  If you could go to Mars today the spacecraft would leave Earth at a speed of about 24,600 mph. The trip to Mars will take about seven or eight months and about 300 million miles. This is not practical, and Aldrin has an alternate solution, his Aldrin Cycler.

In 1985, Aldrin theorized a so-called Aldrin Cycler corresponding to a single synodic period. The synodic period is the time taken for a given object to make one complete orbit around another object.

Later that year, scientists at the JPL and graduate students at Purdue University confirmed and calculated the existence of such trajectories: a single elliptical loop around the Sun, from Earth to Martian orbit would take 146 days, just under five months and another 146 days from the Martian orbit back to Earth. This would chop four to five months off the current plan NASA has to get people to Mars.

A Mars cycler (or Earth–Mars cycler) is a spacecraft trajectory that encounters Earth and Mars regularly. The Aldrin cycler is an example of a Mars cycler. No propulsion is required to shuttle between the two, although some minor corrections may be necessary due to small fluctuations in the orbit.

Cyclers are potentially useful for transporting people or materials between those bodies using minimal propellant (relying on gravity assist flybys for most trajectory changes) and can carry heavy radiation shielding to protect people in transit from cosmic rays and solar storms.

NASA’s Artemis Moon program which will land people on the Moon in 2025 is thought to be a possible staging area for a future trip to Mars slated for 2040. 


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