Why? Well, because of the money, of course. The ISS costs about $3.5 billion per year to maintain. That would be fine if NASA were awash in all the funding it could possibly need, but the federal space agency has only so much to spend. In Aldrin's opinion, it's a waste to keep dumping money into the ISS, which has been orbiting the Earth for years now.
"We must retire the ISS as soon as possible," Aldrin said at the 2017 Humans to Mars conference in Washington, D.C. this week. "We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost."
Aldrin is being pragmatic, but his advice on the ISS doesn't mean he wants to give up on orbital space flight altogether. But instead of using NASA's own resources to keep up a presence in low Earth orbit, Aldrin thinks that the federal space agency should be giving private companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Orbital these projects. These companies might even develop their own space stations and work with China since the Chinese are planning to put their own mid-sized space station into orbit by 2023.
But Aldrin was clear that NASA doesn't need to be wasting its time, workforce and, most significant, funding on the ISS when there are new portions of the galaxy to explore. In fact, he has even cooked up his own plan to get humans on Mars, based on the concept of "cycling pathways," in which spacecraft are constantly shuttling between Earth and Mars. Aldrin would have spaceships toting crew and equipment meet up with the "cyclers," allowing them to hitch a ride to the next planet.
Once NASA has ditched the ISS, Aldrin's plan calls for the international spaceflight community to come together and actually build the cyclers that would start taking people and supplies to the moon and back. The steady rotation of transportation to and from the moon would allow NASA to construct a crewed lunar base that would give people the chance to figure out the techniques they'll need to learn to survive on Mars.
The next step would be Earth-to-Mars cyclers, which Aldrin says would be an "evolutionary development" of the previous cyclers created to go to and from the moon. From there, Aldrin says that NASA should be able to pull off a crewed mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2020 and to land on Venus by 2024. And then — assuming nothing goes science-fiction-movie-level wrong — settlers could be setting up housekeeping on Mars itself by the 2030s.
All of this may sound daunting, but keep in mind that with the right amount of vision and political will, it can probably happen. President John F. Kennedy stated in his famed speech at Rice University that the United States was choosing to go to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. Then, less than a decade later, Aldrin ended up walking on the moon. What might sound impossible now can be doable with enough commitment and drive. And, of course, money.
Aldrin wants to do more than just land on Mars and take a bunch of photos and video to prove NASA did it first. Aldrin says NASA needs to aim to go to Mars as soon as it possibly can, and when the agency gets there, it needs to be ready to stay awhile and really explore the planet. "Let's be certain that we've developed a sustainable plan to stay on Mars," he said. "No flags and footprints this time."
But to make this happen, NASA needs to free up funding. And it doesn't seem likely that the ISS will end up on the budgetary chopping block anytime soon.
Even though Aldrin insists that it's time to drop everything and really go for Mars directly, NASA officials have something very different in mind. The ISS is currently funded through 2024 and NASA officials, along with Russian federal space program officials and other partners, have been poking at the idea of extending the space station's life to at least 2028.
Plus, the federal space agency has laid out its road map to Mars already, as we've noted, and the ISS is a key part of NASA's plan to get boots on the red planet by the 2030s. While it's possible that NASA may choose to alter its approach to the journey to Mars, don't bet on it.