No hyperbole is big enough: The second man to ever walk on the surface of the moon, Buzz Aldrin is one of America's greatest living heroes. The retired astronaut, who appears in the upcoming documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," spoke with MTV News about the current state -- and future of -- the US space program.
MTV: You once wrote that the space program was more than just the culmination of a decade long national effort, that it had some great meaning. What was that meaning for you?
Buzz Aldrin: It was a struggle for the progression of humanity. It was really one of the most exciting challenges for a nation.
MTV: The reason I ask is because for people of my generation -- and I was born a decade after the last lunar landing -- why is it important that people my age get excited about the space program and about the future of the space program?
Aldrin: [Landing on the moon] What was the purpose of doing that? It was inspirational, yeah. It motivated a lot of people to change the directions of their careers, but we also gained a great deal of knowledge. When we go to Mars…we're gonna certainly gain a lot of knowledge, but if we just go there once or twice to satisfy human egos or whatever it is and then don't keep going, we've not made a very good investment. That would be a great tragedy. I probably won't be here to see that happen.
There's no guarantee that the United States will be around 200 years from now. We educate people that go back to their countries and pretty soon they don't have to come [back]. They have learned what they need to learn and their countries are gonna be the countries of leadership in the 21st century. Now, we can sit back and allow that to happen - there is that complacency that grows into a nation. [But] it's indicative of our culture that we are able to accept challenges.
MTV: Where does the space program go from here? What's the next "challenge?"
Aldrin: I think we need to make an evolutionary upgrade of what it is we're doing - we're just not getting the most out of our investment. The investment I think is to send robots. I think there's a potential of looking at Mars as a place to demonstrate.
MTV: What would a Mars mission look like?
Aldrin: I think we need to do it in an evolutionary fashion. I think we need to move to the moons of Mars and learn how to control robots that are on the surface. It's not the impatient way of getting there, but Mars has been there a long time. [The moons] might be a source of water, propellant, all sorts of things that we can't anticipate right now.
MTV: What do you think the biggest misconception is about the space program?
Aldrin: That it's an easy thing to do. It's a very difficult thing. It takes a concerted effort. It takes great resources. We can't just build rockets in our backyard and send people safely into space. Space is not just going up and coming back down again. Space is getting into orbit and being there, living there, establishing a presence, a permanence. And if we're gonna go to Mars, we should not just go there once or twice, we should commit ourselves to a growing permanence. Are we really ready to do that?
MTV: One of the more poignant passages in the film was at the end when the astronauts were talking about how voyaging to the moon changed them spiritually. I wonder how did the voyage change you spiritually or personally when you came back?
Aldrin: After I landed on the moon, I chose to [give] myself communion...but not to make that public. Over the years I think I've matured in my spiritual evolution and development to understand a bit more than the narrow religious thinking - to move beyond that through a sort of perfection of the grandiose nature of the universe, and how perfect it is it in its sense and how satisfied we should all be in our place in that.