Call him a space cadet, but ex-astronaut Buzz Aldrin wants to put tourists in orbit

Tuesday, July 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Has Edwin J. Aldrin Jr. got a vacation for you!

No moonlit beaches. No Broadway shows. No grand old European hotels or leisurely floats down the Amazon River.

If Buzz Aldrin has his way, you'll board a kind of airliner, buckle up and take off with a roar. You'll be subjected to crushing forces, gaining hundreds of pounds one minute, weighing nothing at all the next. No flight attendants will appear with hot towels or hors d'oeuvres, but you might suck a little nourishment from a tube. The scenery will be awesome, but you'll have to share the window with 80 to 100 other passengers. When it's all over, you'll come home, careening through the sky in a giant fireball.

Sound like fun?

Thousands of people apparently think so.

"There are a number of market surveys - not all that well-publicized, but NASA knows about them - that show that at upper levels of cost, a sizable number of people would pay to fly in orbit," says former astronaut Aldrin, who's been there, done that.

"I've been down diving on the Titanic in a three-man submersible. Those trips are being marketed for $70,000. People are paying $100,000 to climb Mount Everest."

Not only does Mr. Aldrin think there's a market for tourists in space, he thinks opening space to civilians is the key to getting the U.S. space program back to the moon and, eventually, on Mars. To that end, he has founded his own company, Share Space, and has just co-authored a novel, The Return, spelling out how it all might be done.

He always was the businesslike astronaut. Alan Bean was the artistic one, the astronaut who turned painter. Edgar Mitchell was the spiritual one. John Glenn was the politician.

But by all accounts, Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., or "Buzz," was always the astronaut who kept his mind on business. Awestruck colleagues said he could almost calculate an orbit in his head. His second-grade teacheronce described him as "all business."

He's still at it, more than three decades after becoming the second man to walk on the "magnificent desolation" of the moon, stepping onto its surface July 20, 1969, just minutes after Neil Armstrong.

"If we were to build a fleet of 15 next-generation orbiters and turn them around in a week or so, we could fly one flight a day with 80 to 100 people," he calculates. Whirrrr, click. "That's what the studies indicate the traffic would support. We could eventually charge $100,000 a seat."

Just as the railroads, built with government subsidies, kindled the desire to travel across the country, he argues, so frequent and relatively inexpensive orbital flights would kindle thinking beyond space exploration: space travel.

The key is a reusable booster rocket that could return to Earth to make repeated flights.

Until now, he says, NASA has depended on throw-away rockets.

In The Return, co-written with veteran science-fiction author John Barnes, the American space program is bogged down until radiation from a nuclear weapon, set off in a war between Pakistan and India, knocks out the world's communication's satellites and endangers astronauts working in the space station. Suddenly, the United States needs plenty of rockets fast, to replace the damaged satellites and rescue the astronauts. Fortunately, several aerospace firms have a trick or two up their sleeves.

It's the duo's second novel; they also co-wrote Encounter With Tiber.

But please don't call it science fiction: "It's a space techno-thriller," says Mr. Aldrin. "Because the words 'science fiction' turn off most readers."

The former astronaut says he was never much of a science-fiction reader. "My imagination focused on airplanes. My father was an aviation pioneer. That, for me, came pretty close to the practical. Those Buck Rogers stories were not practical."

The Return may be practical but it's also pretty exciting, with attempts at sabotage, an astronaut-hero who operates a company similar to Share Space, and a dangerous rescue mission.

But to Mr. Aldrin, the most exciting thing is the prospect of easy access to space. In the book, several civilians have experienced flights on the Space Shuttle, chosen in a lottery scheme Mr. Aldrin first proposed 10 years ago.

"I realized that it would take something like a lottery that would expand beyond the wealthy leisure people who do adventure travel to the guy in the street."

What might await the guy in the street?

"The zero-gravity environment, the novelty of the experience," says a man who should know. "The fact that you can come back and tell people you've done something different, something they can only dream of. We're appealing to the human desire to be different, to be pioneers."

Whether any of this will happen, he says, depends, as usual, on politics.

"The next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have a big say," he says. "I've been trying to formulate a progression of four-year plans for each coming administration."

It would be wonderful if a U.S. president were to make the same kind of dramatic commitment to getting human beings back into space that President Kennedy did on May 25, 1961, when he announced the United States was going to the moon.

"The anniversary of that speech is coming up," moonwalker Buzz Aldrin says. "Don't think I haven't been thinking about that."