If you think the space race is over, think again.
Even though NASA has dramatically scaled back its operations in recent years, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin says there's still hope for America to create a permanent human settlement on Mars.
It's something he's pushing hard for, as evidenced in an interview Tuesday at South by Southwest.
The 87-year-old told an overflow crowd at the Austin Convention Center that other countries, such as Russia, are making more progress these days than the country that helped put him on the moon in 1969.
"I want to be remembered for more than just kicking up moon dust," Aldrin said as he outlined a plan to create a Mars cycler.
His interviewer, Time magazine's Jeffrey Kluger, pointed out that NASA's budget in 1965 was $7.5 billion, which works out to about $60 billion today. In contrast, the space agency's current budget is just a third of that -- $20 billion. In 1965, NASA accounted for 4 percent of the nation's budget, compared to .4 percent today.
Right now, thanks to the cuts, Aldrin said, "Russia is our only ticket off the planet."
Aldrin attributes that, at least in part, to a "flags and footprints" philosophy held by many Americans. After we've set foot on a planet and planted the U.S. flag, he says, a large chunk of folks -- including politicians -- feel like there's nothing more to be gained.
"As a nation, we don't care too much about the science or the geology," Aldrin said. "We just want you to go there and put a flag down. Go there and you come right back. That's not the way we want to venture outward."
Mars, Earth and the sun align every 26 months, Aldrin said. Under his proposal, Americans would depart Earth, bound for space, where they'd rendezvous with a cycler -- a cylinder with ports on the top and bottom -- that would complete their journey to Mars.
Aldrin said he hopes to see a plan in place to settle Mars, most likely preceded by a plan to settle the moon, within the next two and a half years, when America will mark the 50th anniversary of the first landing.
"I think, at that time, the president could say -- if he listens to me -- 'I believe this nation should commit itself in two decades for America to lead international crews to occupy Mars,'" Aldrin said.
It will require "significant sacrifice and significant expense," Aldrin said, but it'll be worth it.
The information two Mars rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- took five years to gather could have been obtained by humans in just a week, Aldrin claims.
"I believe it is so powerful to have human intelligence near Mars," he said.