The Buzz Aldrin Space Institute at FIT: Aiming For Mars

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Since leaving the moon in 1969, Buzz Aldrin has never been far from space advocacy, lending his name to a number of projects,  and showing up at conferences long after other legendary astronauts have retired to a quieter life.  That simply wasn’t in the cards for the second man on the Moon, in part because like many others, he hears the call of Mars. Yesterday, Aldrin was back in the state he once departed on a Saturn V for a formal ceremony commemorating the establishment of the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

This was not merely a ceremonial event.  According to FIT, Dr. Aldrin will be joining the faculty as a Research Professor of Aeronautics and a Senior Faculty Advisory.  It is what the Institute will be doing, “promoting the settlement of Mars through research” and further examining what may be the most important thing to which Buzz has attached his name since the halcyon days of Apollo that may have truly lasting impact.

For the last 30 years, Buzz Aldrin has been studying, refining and promoting a particular approach to Mars exploration which relies on a persistent, repeating orbital pattern between Earth and Mars which bears the generic name “synodic period” but is much better known as the Aldrin Cycler Orbit. Refined in conjunction with Purdue University, the Aldrin cycler orbit is in effect a celestial bus route with pickup and drop-off points at Earth and Mars every 2.3 years. What makes it different is that the bus, or in this case, the reusable spaceships operating in a similar role, never stop moving to pick up the passengers.

Instead, comprised of long duration “Exploration Modules (XM)”  the Aldrin Cycler ships receive astronauts who launch from Earth or Mars in pared down transit capsules to make an orbital rendezvous. The cyclers, being reusable and supported by additive cargo modules launched in the same way, are then able to host the transiting astronauts in relative comfort, stocked with ample supplies and plenty of backups.

On second thought, perhaps a bus isn’t the best analogy. Its more like robbing a train in the days of the Old West. You use the comparatively lightweight horse to accelerate to the train’s speed, match it for a moment and then jump on board. And if you’re really good (or your mount is), and there’s an open freight car, maybe the horse jumps too. Analogy complete.

The key to the concept is that what is being robbed in this case is not gold, but rather the indifferent laws of orbital mechanics as well as a complacent and politically influential aerospace establishment which seems content to repeat the past, throw away literally everything it builds after one use, and not care if it gets anywhere in the first place.

Is it a better way? Aldrin thinks so, and in recent years has been promoting what he calls the “Unified Space Vision (pdf)” which focuses on the Mars Cycler as the key element in gradual buildup of experience which would begin with an XM being tested at ISS, and then see subsequent modules deployed at the L1 and L2 points for extended duration testing.  The now qualified cyclers’ would then be employed in a Phobos first exploration architecture which would see regular crewed missions to the Martian surface beginning in the 2040’s.

Tossed off the train is the Space Launch System, while the Orion capsule is kept, commercial launchers are employed and China gets a critical role as well.  Aldrin sees a role for the Moon too, but is anxious that the U.S. does not divert itself from Mars by focusing on the Moon, preferring to see U.S. leadership in the formation of a commercially operated, government sanctioned International Lunar Development authority structured similarly to the foundations of Intelsat.

Whther the FIT partnership and the establishment of the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute can have a meaningful impact on Mars exploration is an interesting question that only time will answer. To the extent that it can provide a rationale structure for understanding various Mars exploration architectures, regardless of what actual hardware is employed, it may make a valuable contribution to achieving a goal shared by many, but reached by a path that is anything but clear.

Posted in: Mars, SLS / Orion

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  1. I’ve always loved the Aldrin Cycler concept. What I think is missing is some way to build it up as infrastructure from an initial, minimal functional core, from some revenue source. If there were a Martian moon export product that offered cost-saving value for near-Earth operations, that would be something — a solar powered rotating sling might be anchored at a Martian moon pole to send shipments to the cycler on fly-bys. Bonus points if byproducts of processing the export substance to add value could be used as reaction mass to help maintain the cycler orbit. But what would that product be? It’s theorized that Phobos might have a lot of H2O, and it’s been pointed out that, in delta V terms, the surface of Phobos is “closer” than the moon’s surface. Phobos as better H2O source than lunar pole ice? I dunno, seems sketchy.

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