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Moonwalker on the run

Buzz Aldrin's head is buzzing with ideas – ranging from spaceship-building projects to film appearances to, yes, commentary on lovelorn astronaut Lisa Nowak's travails. The 77-year-old moonwalker sadly notes that people know more about the allegedly diaper-wearing astronaut than about NASA's program to go back to the moon. And over the next five years, Aldrin intends to do something about that.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com file
 Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin is still trying to
 keep America focused on the outer-space horizon.
 Click on the image to hear or download a 30-minute
 MP3 audio interview with msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.


Aldrin's biggest claim to fame is his status as the second man to walk on the moon – a title that surely rubs him the wrong way. Unlike the "first man," Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Aldrin still gets his share of publicity's glare. Last month, he was featured on the gossip sites for getting a facelift, and this month he's one of the stars in the new space documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," where he talks about coping with the burden of fame as well as being the first man ... to pee on the moon.

This week, Aldrin stirred up yet another buzz with his observation that there was something admirable, though inexcusable, about Nowak's drive to meet up with a romantic rival. And on Thursday he'll be at the Wired NextFest in Los Angeles, where the X Prize Foundation is due to announce its next big competition.

Just before Labor Day, Aldrin and I talked about a wide range of subjects – including life after NASA, his bouts with depression and alcoholism, his backing for commercial space efforts and his reflections on the future of spaceflight. Among the highlights:

  • Aldrin, whose engineering background earned him the nickname "Dr. Rendezvous" during the Apollo days, has kept his hand in the spaceship design business – and says he is trying to set up a joint venture with California-based SpaceDev, which is developing a private-sector spacecraft for NASA and other potential customers.
  • Although Aldrin noted that round-the-moon flights are now being offered by the Russians, at a cost of $100 million per seat, he said he wouldn't take the ride. "I don't have the money, and I really don't need to do that," he said. Instead, he's working out the details of a ShareSpace "adventure awards program" that could eventually send a winner around the moon with the "spin of a wheel." He said the first stage of the ShareSpace program could be unveiled "at the beginning of next year."
  • Aldrin said he enjoyed seeing the Apollo experience from the perspective of other astronauts in "In the Shadow of the Moon" - including the unexpected humor of Apollo 11 crewmate Mike Collins, who circled the moon in the command module while Aldrin and Armstrong explored the surface. "He was the life of our mission," Aldrin said. "Neil and I were kinda, in those days anyway, a little reserved and not quite as jovial particularly."
  • Now Aldrin is trying to organize a series of astronaut reunions, perhaps in association with a TV network, that would stoke public interest for the 40th and 50th anniversaries of space milestones. By the time the 40th anniversary of the last Apollo moonshot takes place in 2012, Aldrin hopes that the path will be set for NASA's return to the moon in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019.

Keeping America's space program in the public eye is a high priority for Aldrin, particularly as memories of the glory days of the 1960s fade – and as society looks inward rather than out to the stars.

"A poll was taken, and 50 percent of the people knew about Lisa Nowak and the diaper saga, and only 8 percent of the people knew about our plans to return to the moon and go to Mars," Aldrin complained.

He's worried that NASA's space vision could fail - not by aiming too high, but by aiming too low and settling for a juiced-up Apollo program:

"The moon could bog us down, as the space station in a way has bogged us down, when robots could do a lot of those jobs very well. Our real objective, in addition to visiting asteroids and near-Earth objects, is a settlement, a permanent growing settlement on Mars. And that, people just don't understand.

"So the way you get there, the way you prepare by going to the moon to get to Mars, shouldn't emphasize, 'Well, we did it this way in Apollo, so let's do it this way again, and then we'll think about Mars.' No, it should be, 'Let's think about how we're going to get to Mars, and then let's prepare by going to the moon in the best way that prepares us for going to Mars.'"

Here's the MP3 file of the interview, edited down to 30 minutes. You can either click on the link to listen now, or right-click and download the clip for listening later on your MP3 player of choice. Then feel free to weigh in with your comments on the buzz about Aldrin, Apollo's legacy and future space visions. In the days ahead, stay tuned for more moonwalker interviews with Apollo 12's Alan Bean and Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt.