Neil Armstrong Attacks Obama Space Plan
Neil Armstrong has led a pretty quiet life since becoming the first man to set foot on the moon four decades ago. But he’s going public with his displeasure over President Obama’s rumored plan to cancel the next generation space vehicle.
The first man to walk on the moon blasted President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s back-to-the-moon program on Tuesday, saying that the move is “devastating” to America’s space effort.
Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong’s open letter was also signed by Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon; and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, who is marking the 40th anniversary of his famous lunar non-landing this week. The letter was released to NBC News just two days in advance of Obama’s trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a space policy summit. Obama is expected to flesh out his vision for the space agency’s future during his speech at the summit.
The most controversial part of the president’s policy is the cancellation of the Constellation program, which was aimed at developing a new generation of Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft to send astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond. The idea was that such spacecraft would replace NASA’s space shuttle fleet, which is to be retired by the end of this year. But acting on the advice of an independent panel, the Obama administration determined that the Constellation program could not fulfill NASA’s goals on the required timetable. NASA’s budget proposal, released in February, puts the return to the moon on indefinite hold and instead focuses on developing technologies for future exploration.
Canceling Constellation could lead to thousands of layoffs at some of America’s biggest aerospace contractors, including Lockheed Martin, the Boeing Co. and ATK. Such job losses are among the factors behind congressional opposition to the cancellation. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts emphasize the bigger implications, however, and say in their letter that the decision would put the nation on a “long downhill slide to mediocrity.”
The letter notes that the U.S. space effort will be dependent for years to come on the Russians for transport to the International Space Station, at a cost of more than $50 million per seat. NASA is budgeting billions of dollars to support the development of U.S. commercial spaceships that could help fill the gap. The beneficiaries of those billions would include smaller aerospace ventures, such as California-based SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. In their letter, the astronauts say that the availability of such craft “cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.”
Armstrong and his colleagues complained that the cancellation would amount to wasting the roughly $10 billion that has been allocated to Constellation over the past five years. “Equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to re-create the equivalent of what we will have discarded,” they wrote. “For the United States, the leading spacefaring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature,” they said in the letter. “America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space,” the astronauts said. “If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.”
I wouldn’t want to go against Neil Armstrong in a fight over the space program. And they’re asking the right question: Do we want to be the leader in space or not?
But I’m not sure the answer to that is clear-cut. Going back to the moon was one of President Bush’s most ill conceived projects, recreating a feat that we achieved decades earlier for no apparent reason. And it’s not clear that there’s much future in manned space travel, with even Mars being too far away absent some quantum leap in speed.
Regardless, NASA and advocates for space exploration have done a lousy job of selling the program. During the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs it was easy: Not only were we trying to beat the Soviets but it was a thrilling adventure. But the space shuttle, with its routine trips and mission specialists, turned space flight into something much less sexy (if not less dangerous). And rockets are a snooze. So, somebody — and it would be hard to think of anyone better than Armstrong, Cernan, Lovell, Buzz Aldrin, and their cohort — needs to explain what we’re getting for our money.
The full text of the Armstrong-Lovell-Cernan letter:
The United States entered into the challenge of space exploration under President Eisenhower’s first term, however, it was the Soviet Union who excelled in those early years. Under the bold vision of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and with the overwhelming approval of the American people, we rapidly closed the gap in the final third; of the 20th century, and became the world leader in space exploration.
America’s space accomplishments earned the respect and admiration of the world. Science probes were unlocking the secrets of the cosmos; space technology was providing instantaneous worldwide communication; orbital sentinels were helping man understand the vagaries of nature. Above all else, the people around the world were inspired by the human exploration of space and the expanding of man’s frontier. It suggested that what had been thought to be impossible was now within reach. Students were inspired to prepare themselves to be a part of this new age. No government program in modern history has been so effective in motivating the young to do “what has never been done before.”
World leadership in space was not achieved easily. In the first half-century of the space age, our country made a significant financial investment, thousands of Americans dedicated themselves to the effort, and some gave their lives to achieve the dream of a nation. In the latter part of the first half century of the space age, Americans and their international partners focused primarily on exploiting the near frontiers of space with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
As a result of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, it was concluded that our space policy required a new strategic vision. Extensive studies and analysis led to this new mandate: meet our existing commitments, return to our exploration roots, return to the moon, and prepare to venture further outward to the asteroids and to Mars. The program was named “Constellation.” In the ensuing years, this plan was endorsed by two Presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.
The Columbia Accident Board had given NASA a number of recommendations fundamental to the Constellation architecture which were duly incorporated. The Ares rocket family was patterned after the Von Braun Modular concept so essential to the success of the Saturn 1B and the Saturn 5. A number of components in the Ares 1 rocket would become the foundation of the very large heavy lift Ares V, thus reducing the total development costs substantially. After the Ares 1 becomes operational, the only major new components necessary for the Ares V would be the larger propellant tanks to support the heavy lift requirements.
The design and the production of the flight components and infrastructure to implement this vision was well underway. Detailed planning of all the major sectors of the program had begun. Enthusiasm within NASA and throughout the country was very high.
When President Obama recently released his budget for NASA, he proposed a slight increase in total funding, substantial research and technology development, an extension of the International Space Station operation until 2020, long range planning for a new but undefined heavy lift rocket and significant funding for the development of commercial access to low earth orbit.
Although some of these proposals have merit, the accompanying decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.
America’s only path to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station will now be subject to an agreement with Russia to purchase space on their Soyuz (at a price of over 50 million dollars per seat with significant increases expected in the near future) until we have the capacity to provide transportation for ourselves. The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.
It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.
For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature. While the President’s plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.
Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.
Commander, Apollo 11
Commander, Apollo 13
Commander, Apollo 17