Buzz Aldrin: 'You don't just go to Mars for a day and come back'

Buzz Aldrin sends people to Mars — through virtual reality

Pioneering astronaut Buzz Aldrin is best known for being the second man to step foot on the moon. Now, he's stepping into a new space -- virtual reality -- and hoping to inspire interest in space exploration and communicate his plan to send humans to Mars to this and future generations.

At the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, the 87-year old former astronaut and engineer debuted his new VR experience, created by virtual reality company 8i, called "Cycling Pathways to Mars." The 10-minute immersive experience is being billed as "the first legacy virtual reality project," which guides users on a trip to the moon and the red planet.

In an interview with CNBC, Aldrin said virtual reality provides a "great experience of almost being there… and that's going to be wonderful for expressing a number of ideas." While Aldrin is excited about the technology as a teaching tool, he said VR is still "an individual participation," and admitted that his VR film likely won't reach mass audiences.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin in an interview during SXSW festival in Austin, Texas on March 14, 2017.
Natalie Barnard | CNBC

Virtual reality technology has struggled to break into the mainstream, as costly headsets and limited premium content have failed to spark consumer demand. Still, the technology is ubiquitous at South by Southwest this year, with more than 40 official VR events, including a VR competition, and panels on topics like funding VR content, VR in Hollywood and "love in a virtual/augmented age."

For Aldrin, presenting his ideas in virtual reality is just the first step in advancing interest in space travel. Perhaps more important is convincing the government that space exploration is a worthwhile venture, and working with private space companies to make his ideas a reality.

Last week, Aldrin met with vice president Mike Pence at the White House to "shape the space policy of our administration," according to a tweet from Mr. Pence. When asked whether he thinks the Trump administration will continue to invest in space, Aldrin said "I do… that number hopefully won't go down."

Aldrin said that while Congress is focused on doing "the same thing over and over," private companies like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are innovating in new ways.

"I think we will follow the lead of some advancing rocket engines that Blue Origin is coming along with," he said. Aldrin said he has been in touch with both Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk "quite a bit recently," and said he and son are part of a study being done "to implement Elon Musk's plan to go to Mars."

When asked whether he thinks a mission to Mars will happen in the near future, Aldrin said there are still steps that must be taken first to make it affordable and sustainable. "You don't just go to Mars for a day and come back like we did with the moon," he said.