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Our future is in space, astronaut says

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Over 40 years ago, American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to walk on the surface of the moon.

Aldrin, now in his early 80s, has maintained a high public profile as an advocate for continued American exploration of space.

A true visionary with big ideas, Aldrin expounds his take on America's future in space in Mission to Mars, his eighth book, this one written with the assistance of space journalist Leonard David.

Aldrin's passion for space shines through these pages; his book is replete with proposals and concepts for space travel that engage the reader's imagination.

Central to Aldrin's narrative is what he calls his Unified Space Vision (USV), a blueprint for American leadership in space in the 21st century. The USV incorporates five purposes for venturing into space: exploration, science, technological development, commerce and security.

By "security," Aldrin means not only American defence, but also defence of the planet from asteroids that could collide with Earth.

The ultimate objective of the USV is an American-led permanent human presence on Mars by the year 2035.

In order to achieve this end, Aldrin urges an incremental approach to reaching out into deep space. First, humanity should establish itself on the moon, then visit an asteroid, then land on one of the moons of Mars.

Each of these voyages would perfect the technology needed for the ultimate goal: the human settlement of Mars itself.

For the most efficient means of interplanetary travel, Aldrin has conceived what he calls a "cycler system."

In Aldrin's conception, reusable spacecraft would perpetually cycle between the Earth and the moon, and between the Earth and Mars. Without getting bogged down in the physics of this concept, Aldrin explains that the spacecraft are sustained in their orbit through gravitational forces, greatly reducing the need for fuel.

"This is a 'waste not' philosophy," Aldrin writes. "It's a mix of beautiful simplicity melded with a ballet of gravitational forces that moves humanity outward to Mars."

The cycler system is Aldrin's key concept, the basis for his vision of an expanded human presence in space.

Linked by the cycler system, Earth, the moon and Mars form "a celestial triad of worlds. They will be busy hubs for the ebb and flow of passengers, cargo and commerce traversing the inner solar system."

Aldrin suggests that the U.S. should help to form an international consortium to explore and develop the moon.

The consortium would make use of the space programs of China, Europe, Russia, India and Japan to establish a permanent human foothold on the moon.

The involvement of the U.S. would be limited to robotic base building.

In Aldrin's vision, the exploration of the moon by several countries would eventually create the conditions for a role for the private sector -- commercial mining of the resource-rich moon.

In order to keep America focused on space exploration, Aldrin says, a United Strategic Space Enterprise (USSE) should be instituted. This would be a think tank composed of space authorities who would provide oversight and guidance to America's space program.

Clearly, Aldrin has a lot of ideas, but he doesn't have too much to say about how they will be funded in this era of government deficits. At one point he does say that the American space program will cost each U.S. taxpayer "pennies per day."

What are the benefits for the U.S. of a renewed commitment to space exploration?

Developing the technology to explore space will create spinoffs to improve life on Earth.

But there is a less tangible benefit: "It reminds the American public that nothing is impossible if free people work together to accomplish great things."

Perhaps most important, moving to Mars and beyond, Aldrin says, will promote the survivability of our species.

Aldrin has articulated a comprehensive vision for an American -- indeed an international -- future in space. His passion and scientific rigour make Mission to Mars a compelling work.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 A1

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