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Purdue Students Hope To Get To Mars On Buzz Aldrin's Back

Stan Jastrzebski

There are a couple different types of pull that are critical to a Mars travel project a group of Purdue aeronautics students is crafting. One is gravitational – tugging spacecraft in a continuous elliptical orbit around the sun so they don’t have to be wastefully launched from earth every time. It’s a model that uses a craft called a “cycler” – and that’s where the other pull comes in.

“The biggest thing for this mission sometimes is Dr. Aldrin’s name,” says project manager Stephen Whitnah, who led a presentation for Buzz Aldrin and a few hundred others at Purdue last week. Whitnah says the influence wielded by the feisty 85-year old Aldrin – who came up with the cycler model the project is using -- is something his team hopes to leverage.

“Because he can get his vision and his plan out in a lot of his speaking events, things like that. So by continuing to advocate for it and the unified plan that he’s laid out, I think that’s the way that it continues to move forward,” Whitnah says.

Aldrin has been working on the cycler model for close to 30 years. Purdue professor James Longuski, whose class undertook Aldrin’s design mission, met the second man on the moon when Aldrin came to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in the 1980s, where Longuski was working at the time. Aldrin needed help making the math work, and Longuski says the model makes sense.

“So if you put a space vehicle or habitat or astro-hotel – they’ve got different names for it, castle in space – into this kind of orbit, then you don’t have to send a new spacecraft every time you go to Mars," Longuski says. "You can wait for this vehicle to come flying by. You have to get into a little taxi and catch up with the bus, and then it takes you to Mars. There’s also a leg that takes you back to the Earth.”

After viewing the students’ presentation, Aldrin pronounced himself pleased, but also pointed out a few flaws – some political and some technological. There are simpler fixes, like changing the way the ships are powered to avoid potential problems.

“I sorta thought we were going to do three propulsions systems, getting three landers there, triple redundancy with the major intercept propulsion," Aldrin says. "At the moon, we’re on a free return trajectory. There is no free return trajectory at Mars. And if you cut off short, you’re in an orbit around the sun.”

And there are harder ones, like raising the public profile for space travel – especially with politicians, for whom Aldrin had some pointed comments.

“Obviously there are a number of lunar geologists and other people who would like to get on with doing something right away who would like to return to the moon. I think our president made it pretty clear: been there, done that.”

Aldrin also says some politicians may be uncomfortable with the ramifications of what he sees as the almost inevitable partnership between the United Stated and other spacefaring nations. But he notes space has been a meeting place for even warring nations before.

“There’s an assumption initially of international cooperation – and that includes China. To me that’s almost a requirement," Aldrin says. "Apollo-Soyuz – this July, an anniversary – needs to call attention to the Cold War situation, 1975, and what cooperation led to.”

Professor James Longuski says funding is also a concern.

“When we had Apollo running, the expenditure we have today compared to that would be less than one-quarter of what Apollo got," he says. "So quite a significant reduction from the level of commitment we had when we went to the moon with the Apollo program.”

Project manager Stephen Whitnah says he believes any inertia – either on the launch pad or in Washington – can be overcome as long as space travel’s profile is bolstered.

“I think right now the momentum is starting to pick up," Whitnah says. "I think the space industry is growing and expanding and people are starting to get excited again about space. But you know, when the space shuttle was cancelled, I think the public support kind of dwindled a little bit; people were not sure if we were even going into space anymore.”

And Whitnah is quick to point to Aldrin as someone who’s key to powering that public support. For his part, Aldrin told the students they’ve given NASA some new fuel to stoke the public interest.

“I can tell you that the basis of what you have done is going a very long way toward inspiring more detailed examination from the people who will be making decisions as to what we will be doing in the future,” Aldrin says.

Aldrin plans to make return trips to Purdue to continue conversations about the Mars project, and says he may even try to find jobs for a couple members of the team to come work with him.

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