More Science Talk
Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, talks about solar energy, buses between the planets, the Constellation program, his time on the moon and his new animated movie, Fly Me to the Moon. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned in this episode include www.snipurl.com/aldrin; www.sciamdigital.com; www.flymetothemoonthemovie.com
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting August 20th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. Buzz Aldrin is an American icon; the West Point graduate piloted the lunar module on Apollo 11 and became the second human being to walk on the moon. He was in New York City to promote the new animated movie Fly Me to the Moon, in which he plays himself. We talked about an article he wrote for the March 2000 issue of Scientific American called "A Bus Between the Planets" about how gravity-assist trajectories between Earth and Mars could greatly reduce the cost of getting people and equipment between the planets. We also talked about the Constellation program, which will replace the space shuttle and is supposed to return us to the moon by 2020. We spoke in the lobby of the Gramercy Hotel in Manhattan, that's why you hear music in the background. Before I even had a chance to ask him a question, he started to talk about solar power articles he had seen in Scientific American.
Aldrin: You've had some things recently on terrestrial solar power, solar energy...
Steve: Oh yes...absolutely.
Aldrin: And I have been in touch with some of the people who represented that. And I think, though I am not sure, that whether there has appeared a review of a recent study on space-based solar. I'm trying to bring those two efforts together to compliment each other. So they are not saying, well, we can do this and they can't do that or they are going to cost more, it can take longer to do this. Let's do this now. The two are working together in the same technology, the same source of energy and the same, sort of the same, net result of helping get...
Steve: What do you think the chances are of having a large-scale solar supply of energy for this country in the next 30 years?
Aldrin: Oh, 30 years—I think it's pretty good. It's going to take a persistence and of course you're going to trade on the turf of somebody else somewhere along the line and maybe going to take some novel financing that I have had some suggestions of some people who think that it really can be done without a whole lot of government investing in long range, in the future that we can do this through advance-purchase type arrangements and agreements that then can indicate a willingness or the end product and then you can get people to invest upfront in the development, at least towards it, something like that.
Steve: So ironical: I thought we are going to talk about the moon; we are talking about the sun.
Aldrin: Yeah, we'll talk about the moon all we want; this is not a great source of energy.
Steve: (laughs) No...no....
Aldrin: Well, some people think helium 3 is a great material. I don't think we have the appropriate reactor yet to say, "Oh! We're going to go to the moon and we are going to mine helium 3 and bring it back." Yeah, if you can demonstrate you can really use it.
Steve: I was shocked to realize today—because I remember reading your article for us when it first came in—and I was shocked to see that it was published in 2000. I thought, if you would ask me, I would have said three or four years ago, but you did the article for us on gravity-assist trajectories in 2000 with James Oberg and I just was wondering if you want to say anything about that.
Aldrin: Well, sure. That has been significantly evolved favorably by a professor and a couple of graduate students at Purdue—and one of them in particular is now a PhD at JPL—and he and I have shared some evolution of the cycling spaceship concept; and it has been further evolved in my mind with the idea of growing permanence at Mars and how when you're concentrating on building people up there, it leads to an architecture of spacecraft concepts of delivery that is much simpler maybe then we would have thought about before. You don't have to put so much emphasis on bringing people back, because they're going to stay there once we build up the confidence that they are not going to all fall apart.
Steve: Lot of people might not know you've a doctorate from M.I.T. and the subject of your thesis was guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous.
Steve: Did any of the specific things that you worked on in your thesis wind up coming into play when you were actually doing it?
Aldrin: Absolutely. Well I a had a concept, a method of approach, and there were two other competing methods and essentially the one that that I suggested was selected as the model for the Gemini program and then I worked with other Mission Control people in setting up the ways of arriving at the good initial conditions, they then be able to have that crew monitoring
of what was happening. So that if something wasn't working—a computer platform, or inertial platform or radar—that the crew could continue on with the good chance of completing the rendezvous. As it turned out...
Steve: And this was actually by visual.
Aldrin: Yes, that was involved; it used whatever was available to come up with a solution other than a computer-generated solution. So, you use what was available within the spacecraft to monitor and make sure that it was appropriate, and of course the radar failed intermittently on Gemini 12 and we had to use the backup generated solutions towards the ground and tell others what to do; and we chose to use our calculated ones, because the computer just wasn't geared to do that without continuous solutions.
Steve: Now you are saying, "Don't worry, I invented this stuff."
Aldrin: That's right. We know how to do it and then it was heartening to see that Apollo moved in the same direction to use basically a very similar thing because the crew was familiar and confident with that and it is still essentially what's being done today; but now we have multiple computers and you don't want to spend a tedious amount of time with crew training on something that you've a high confidence of happening. Now this is all Earth orbit rendezvous. If things aren't going right at the moon and you require rendezvous to come back home, you are going to use everything available to make sure it's working right.
Steve: We have very limited time, but I wanted to ask you about your opinions about the Constellation system, I know, based on some press reports you've some serious feelings about that.
Aldrin: Well, the concept, the vision for space exploration has enunciated by the president, which consists of adhering to the accident board, which says don't fly the shuttle beyond 2010, and in that time complete as much as the space station as you can and then move on to exploration. Now, we can't just leave the space station up to the Russians or something. We would like to have a transportation system that's affordable, attractive and marketable that goes to low Earth orbit in addition to going to the moon in the appropriate way. I think we can do that and should be doing that and maybe should put more emphasis on that system rather than just cargo delivery to the station. American people want to see our astronauts delivered there and we don't have to ride with the Russians. The Europeans deliver cargo, the Japanese can deliver cargo and we can deliver people if we make the right choices. And it can really add to our future because we missed having that in the past. Setbacks with the shuttle have resulted in our sitting on the ground until the shuttle was ready; we almost went six years without Americans flying and that's incompatible with a nation that landed six times out of six when we tried to—at the moon. I think that the vision is correct and there appeared to be some questions by a number of people at this stage that we don't have the redundancy; and since there is that question, I think because we have a new administration coming in that wants to accept a reevaluated status of where we stay in now. If I were coming in as president and there were some concerns, I would want a reevaluation before committing my new administration to something that had been put in motion to satisfy a vision, but the implementation may have some evolving question marks.
Steve: That's just a good systems-analysis approach.
Aldrin: It may be that one of my options that I think needs to be really studied by an independent group of people who are not biased one way or the other by contracts, by agendas, by the course that they are supporting contractually or business wise or political reasons; and I am finding that it looks like we are going to have to take not just establish[ed] think tanks, because it looks like they don't want to encourage the wrath of objecting to something that's in motion. They don't want to gamble on something and endorse something that might be decided by somebody else then it would be out of favor. And actually I regret a little, but I think I have a solution to that, and that's advocacy groups combined with retired people and studies that had been done I think are fully adequate to make general options available; and one option clearly is just do exactly what we set out to do, what we've been doing—that is certainly one. Another one is to
differ [defer] exploration a good while and concentrate just on the space station. It's sort of another swing. Now some of the things that we would do to do that combined with the stay the course as we analyze of our ways, that may be an in-between solution. One of those pathways would be to move toward reusable components with an idea toward increased reliability and increased strike rate that would support solar power satellites and adventure travel in the space, where you don't just take a few people when you can, you begin to make a business out of it one way or another. And those things generate additional enthusiasm and all of them point toward one objective that's in my mind and that's U.S. leadership in the field of advanced space activities and advanced inspirational movement of humans outward throughout our solar system and robotically beyond the solar system.
Steve: Sounds good. I know you're in a hurry. Tell us about the movie real quick.
Aldrin: Well, I think it is a very, far more than satisfactory combination of the historical education of young people who all just while are watching a very interesting humorous portrayal of human characteristics given to nonintelligent creatures like flies and it's...
Steve: It's about flies that are stowaways on the mission.
Aldrin: Yeah, and they get inspired to do that by seeking adventure by listening to a grandparent describe adventures that he was seeking in the past, trying to fly in a Mercury capsule and being frustrated at the last minute and then being an inspiration to the young kids and then they work in team work to help each other carry out something. There were three flies who worked together with different characteristics, different personalities. The crew of Apollo 11 was three guys working in team work, three different personalities, and we combine[d to] work together as a very effective team and carried on our way.
Steve: Let me finish by asking you something I always wanted to know—and I saw a quote from you that sort of indicates what the answer might be—were you so busy with mission protocol on the moon that you had no time to just sort of take a deep breath? What was the actual experience of being up there? Did you have any time to just say, "This is unbelievable?"
Aldrin: Well, there is no way to recreate or really anticipate the visual that we were given. Not that it was surprising—but it was understandable—but it just couldn't project
the head that you are going to see unusual things like put your foot down and the dust goes out and kind of lands in a different way. Things behave differently up there. And then you try and confirm how mobile a person can be and what is the best way of moving around.
Steve: The quote that I saw was you saying that when you got back to Earth, and all the hooplah, and you said to Neil Armstrong "We missed it."
Aldrin: What I was referring to was the enthusiasm that I saw people have here on Earth, seeing that we landed successfully. We couldn't share it because we were sort of indisposed.
Steve: For a print interview with Aldrin see the August 13th article on our Web site called "The Latest Buzz: Aldrin Flies to the Moon Again". It's at www.snipurl.com/aldrin. Aldrin's March 2000 Scientific American article "A Bus Between the Planets" is available at www.SciAmdigital.com and the movie's Web site is www.flymetothemoonthemovie.com
Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Chewing gum after colon surgery enhances the recovery of intestinal function.
Story number 2: From good news about gum to a nice note about chocolate. Naturally occurring compounds in cocoa may improve brain function.
Story number 3: Elderly survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic still have active antibodies to the virus.
And story number 4: Researchers have shown that only certain mammals can develop the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. It turns out that one of the best things you can do after surgery to remove part of the colon is chew gum. According to a study in the August issue of Archives of Surgery, gum chewing fools the body into thinking you are eating; you get increased saliva production and nerve stimulation in the digestive system, which triggers the release of hormones that increase secretions from the pancreas, all of which gets the intestine back up to speed sooner.
Story number 2 is true. Cocoa compounds look like they are good for brain function. Cocoa flavonols appear to increase blood flow to the brain. In the long term that could help with cognition. Researchers also hope to develop the compounds into possible treatments to help the brain recover from dementia and stroke. The research appeared in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment and was supported by the Mars Company, in an example of enlightened self interest. Mars is also supporting the sequencing of the cocoa genome.
And story number 3 is true. Extremely elderly survivors of the Spanish flu epidemic that killed tens of millions of people 90 years ago still have working antibodies to the virus. Injecting the antibodies into mice protected the animals from the virus. The study appeared in the journal Nature. Analyzing the antibodies could help in the development of treatments if a strain similar to the 1918 one comes along again. For more, listen to the August 19th edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 4, about certain mammals being the only animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Only great apes including us, dolphins and elephants had previously been shown to be able to recognize themselves in mirrors—your cat thinks that mirror image is another cat. But new research finds that magpies that look in a mirror realized that they are looking at themselves. The work appeared in the journal Public Library of Science Biology. Birds have very different brains than mammals do. The neocortex is thought to be crucial for self recognition in mammals but the magpie finding shows that self recognition can occur in species that don't even have a neocortex, which means that higher cognitive skills can develop independently along separate evolutionary lines. You try recognizing yourself without a neocortex, smart guy.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit www.SciAm.com to check out our special package of articles on privacy and online security. The August 18th edition of the daily podcast features an interview with SciAm.com's Larry Greenemeier about our special package on privacy. Here is a clip.
Larry: Since social networking sites have become so popular, people who are readily filling in these profiles with all kinds of information about themselves, then you know you do it without realizing. You know, you're putting information about your pet and your family and what you did, what you like to do, your hobbies. There are people out there who can piece together the puzzle and figure out how to answer questions such as the last time you forgot your password and your bank said what's your pet's name or what's your favorite movie and you set those things up when you sign up for those accounts. So, you know the answer thinking that most other people wouldn't, but that's not necessarily the case.
Steve: That's part of the special package on privacy and online security up at www.SciAm.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.