HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Buzz Aldrin has been back on Earth for decades now, but he's widely known as an advocate for human space exploration.
"My greatest good fortune was to join Neil and Mike on the Saturn V that day," he recalled. "Now, I look forward to America's leading role in a next-step alliance."
Aldrin was the keynote speaker at the Aerospace States Association awards dinner in Huntsville, which coincided with the city's Apollo 50th Celebration. He said 50 years later, we can't forget what they did during the Apollo program and the sense of togetherness it brought us, but we also can't stay on the ground.
He charged the ASA, in town for a policy summit, with working together and bringing in even other countries to join the progress.
"I think what is needed now for our country is the next-step space alliance," he said. "That's the gathering together of the capable entities, space agencies, and other contributors. And to me, that would include NASA... We can't pay for all of it. We have to learn at the moon by bringing in the other nations that want to really go there for the first time. And then we can all put together what is really needed to get to Mars."
But Aldrin is critical of the progress that has been made so far.
"It is very discouraging for me, and many others, to realize that the top heavy-lift rocket that the U.S. has today, the Space Launch System, and the top spacecraft that the U.S. has today, the Orion spacecraft, can not get into lunar orbit with any appreciable maneuver capability. Now I say that to this audience because that is not very good for 50 years of development."
He noted that he has his own orbital rendezvous plan, and he thought it was more efficient and resourceful based on current capabilities. Later, the astronaut acknowledged this might not be what the crowd came to hear. But he said, he looks forward to communicating with elected officials who he joked, make the decisions about what we do in space.
Alabama Lieutenant Governor, Will Ainsworth, serves as national chair for the organization. Before the speech, he said having Aldrin here on this important week is out of this world.
"It's an honor to get to meet somebody who is a national hero. and I think just for our state it's a big deal, for our country, it's a big deal. It's an honor to be able to welcome him to Alabama."
Ainsworth said the work will continue through the rest of the week, as the politicians and stakeholders develop policy and continue to advocate for the aerospace industry in their home states.
"I was just talking with some industry leaders who are here and they are talking about expanding the existing industry," he said. "I think a lot of new industries are looking here. And the reason why is we are the aerospace capital of the world. I think when you look at our tax environment with the workforce we are training Alabama is open for business in aerospace, no doubt."
This week, other astronauts joined Aldrin in calling for further missions above Earth's atmosphere.
Ed Gibson said, "I'd love to see us take all this enthusiasm in looking back at Apollo 50 years ago-- let's see us turn that enthusiasm forward and look at what we are going to do in the next 50 years. And get all that enthusiasm behind what we should be doing right now."
Tom Stafford remembered the bravery, and the power, it takes for a successful liftoff.
"The real kick is leaving the earth, That booster is one of your biggest risks," he noted.
The risk, they agree, is worth taking to build on the success of the Apollo program.
For Aldrin, it's the most important thing we can do now.
"We can not afford to be unsuccessful in what we have chosen to do," he said.