Former NASA Astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes President Obama after being introduced during a White House event in 2009. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / The Associated Press)
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You may know him as the second man to set foot on the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969, but Buzz Aldrin is also a decorated Air Force pilot who flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War, bringing down two Russian MiG-15s. Following Aldrin’s NASA career, he went on to serve as commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, retiring as a colonel in 1972 with 21 years of military service. Now, he has his sights set again on uncharted territory: the planet Mars and its moons.
Aldrin’s new book, “Mission to Mars,” due out May 7, details his vision to see humans land on the Red Planet by 2035. In the meantime, he remains close to his military roots with an initiative called VetSalute, which makes veterans aware that they can salute their flag during the national anthem.
The 83-year-old American hero spoke with Military Times on March 20.
Q. How did flying a fighter jet compare with piloting the lunar module on the Apollo 11 mission?
A. Once into orbit, the motions of the spacecraft are very gentle and delicate. The fighter aircraft has to maneuver around a good bit, but the spacecraft is very slow and very well-behaved. I shouldn’t say slow, because it’s traveling at 15,000 or 20,000 mph.
Q. Last year, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made headlines when he proposed a moon base. Do you believe the U.S. military needs a base on the moon?
A. It’s difficult for me to see, even though you could call the moon a high ground and that’s very useful in military strategy. But it’s usually better to be a little closer to the Earth than the moon is.
Q. What’s your vision for Mars and when could we get there?
A. A very bold mission called Inspiration Mars could depart in 2018 with a crew of two to fly around Mars and back in about a year and a half, and I think that would be very inspiring and the correct thing to do.
By 2040, the first human beings could be able to arrive and land on another planet, which would of course be one of the major, major historical moments in the history of human existence on the planet Earth.
It is one of those things that would provide a tremendous inspirational boost to the education of our younger generations and to the improvement of life here on Earth.
Q. There have been more than 80 American astronauts with Air Force service, nearly 100 from the Navy and Marine Corps and about 15 from the Army. How fierce is the inter-service rivalry?
A. It’s not very productive, I think. Sometimes it’s considered to be in jest, but usually it’s a little more serious than that.
Q. Rumor has it you punched Apollo 11 conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel in 2002 when he tried to stage a confrontation with you. True?
A. I became an immediate hero again of many people. This individual had bothered quite a few other astronauts. I just didn’t feel like having someone bring their own TV camera and having someone call me a liar and a cheat could be left unanswered. It was obviously a gesture on my part to an individual interfering with the freedom of other people, and the absurdity of using national achievements to propel a selfish individual to notoriety is the height of arrogance.