Neil Armstrong Attacks Obama Space Plan

neil-armstrong-nasaNeil 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.

Neil Armstrong
Commander, Apollo 11

James Lovell
Commander, Apollo 13

Eugene Cernan
Commander, Apollo 17

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. UlyssesUnbound says:

    I usually support NASA unquestioningly. I think they are an agency whose budget is used most fully for what it was intended. The research that have put out has lead to invaluable advances in technology–aresols, pacemakers, velcro even! That said, it was time to ax the constellation/orion project about the same time it was launched. It’s been behind schedule and over budget for years now, and from what I understand there is no end in site.

    We need a replacement for the shuttle, however it was folly basing that replacement on a goal that has already been completed–and one that has no real benefits other than pissing rights (despite sci-fi nerds wetdream of a moonbase [and I am one of those nerds]).

    Start again, take a look at what our real space needs are (I would say payload delivery) and design from there.

    Also, spot on on the analysis of NASA’s inability to make spaceflight sexy/interesting. It’s been a problem for decades. When John Glenn became the oldest man in space, there was a lot of media, but not because of NASA trying to capitalize on it. When Eileen Collins became the first woman commander, there was nary a peep from NASA about this event. I think it is safe to say that almost any good publicity-raising mission NASA has had they have buried.

    Maybe one of their budget priorities should be a good marketing agent….

  2. john personna says:

    We should be placing bets on the best “verging” technologies. There was a time when aerospace was definitely that. It only took 12 years from Sputnik to the first moon landing. Scientists pulled together a lot of what we almost knew and could almost build, and made it happen.

    Manned space advocates would like that to be a permanent war … but most of us see declining returns in the successive 12 year spans. What is the space station doing to improve our lives? Most of us would be hard pressed to answer. Official answers seem contrived.

    There may actually be a time when manned space flight is again verging, building on new inventions we make here on earth. But not now. Right now (we hope) better batteries and better solar cells are verging.

  3. Tim says:

    You guys are way too predictable.

  4. john personna says:

    Funny Tim. With that shallow a post I am free to speculate …

    “Cutting our near-SOVIET space bureau is Socialist!”

  5. Do we want to be the leader in space or not? But I’m not sure the answer to that is clear-cut.

    And that is extremely depressing, final frontier and all that.

  6. UlyssesUnbound says:

    You guys are way too predictable.

    Zing! Man, it cuts like a knife. I clearly stand corrected on every point I made.

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    This sentence popped out at me in the article quoted:

    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.

    It seems to me that this decision was less about the space program in general and more about this program in particular.

  8. john personna says:

    If you take the long view, doing manned flight in one decade or not is no big deal. If we are going to other planets, we will, when we have the tech.

    It is very common for the manned flight advocates in the media to present a false argument. They say “if we stop now, we’ll never go.”

    Who made that rule? Why would that rule even make sense? What matters is how possible it is, and at what cost, and that is driven by the technology base (99% developed on Earth, with 1% zero-G medical experiments or whatever).

    It’s even possible that doubling-down on dirtside NASA experiments will speed the process. Research is cheap compared to flight.

  9. Bill H says:

    …the cancellation would amount to wasting the roughly $10 billion that has been allocated to Constellation over the past five years.

    That is absolutely the worst reason to continue spending money. More businesses have gone broke trying to “save sunk costs” that any other reason. The fact that we have poured money into a project does not mean that it is a viable project. It may, in fact, mean the opposite; if we have poured all that money in, why is it not producing?

    There may be good reasons to continue the Moon project, but avoiding the waste of “sunk costs” is most certainly not one of them.

  10. john personna says:

    Alex:

    It seems to me that this decision was less about the space program in general and more about this program in particular.

    Well, Constellation was doubling-down on the traditional manned path. Bush pushed it even knowing that the tech for sensible a Mars was not there.

  11. Too bad NASA doesn’t have any “shovel-ready” projects.

  12. TangoMan says:

    Who? Whom? The space program doesn’t have much to do with redistribution and remaking America into Obama’s vision of how it should be. The space program would benefit all the wrong people.

  13. john personna says:

    Well, the real socialists love space programs because they are big, centralized, demonstrations of state power and state science. Look back to who launched the US version.

  14. Brett says:

    Who made that rule? Why would that rule even make sense? What matters is how possible it is, and at what cost, and that is driven by the technology base (99% developed on Earth, with 1% zero-G medical experiments or whatever).

    Because if you gut the manned spaceflight program down to non-existence, then you not only lose much of the equipment and materials necessary to make rockets (we can’t, for example, make Saturn V rockets right now because all the tools and assembly lines for making them were destroyed long ago), but the expertise dissipates as all the engineers, scientists, and people involved in the manned space program go elsewhere.

    Re-assembling that can be done, but it’s a major loss of institutional memory and capability, and doing so takes a long time (the Constellation borrows a lot from the Saturn V’s, but even with that we basically have to re-invent the wheel on a lot of things).

    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.

    That sucks for humanity, I guess. We’ll be at the mercy of the next multi-kilometer asteroid to come rolling by, and there are plenty of them. Or perhaps we’ll do ourselves in – the future of genetics suggests some very, very unpleasant possibilities in terms of biological weaponry for relatively cheap costs.

  15. Brett says:

    I should add –

    I think Obama will ultimately back down on a lot of his proposal. Killing Constellation will put thousands out of work in Florida, and Florida is a crucial swing state.

  16. John Personna says:

    Brett, remember that we had zero “instituional memory” when we went from the Sputnik wake-up call to a moon landing. It was more important that the tech from other fields was lining up.

    No, I think “intsitutional memory” is a weak claim, especially when we haven’t been building the “cheap lifters” we go overseas for.

  17. PJ says:

    Bush never allocated any extra money to NASA for this, instead NASA had to gut other projects.

    Sadly, with the current economy, I can’t see a manned mission to Mars as a priority.

  18. Brett says:

    Brett, remember that we had zero “instituional memory” when we went from the Sputnik wake-up call to a moon landing. It was more important that the tech from other fields was lining up.

    The difference is that in the 1960s, NASA was drawing 5% of the Federal Budget at its peak, and its motto was “waste money, not time” in getting to the Moon. They could afford to burn large amounts of money developing that talent in a shorter period of time.

    It was rougher getting there than it would be now if the manned space program fell apart in the US (simply because much of the stuff back then was literally bleeding-edge technology), but that doesn’t change the fact that it would be a tremendously difficult task to re-assemble a manned space program once all that talent – the institutional memory and industrial capabilities that make such a program possible – dissipates.

    That’s why I brought up the Saturn V rocket. One of the reasons why they were re-inventing the wheel is because

    A)there’s really not a lot more room for improvement in terms of getting into LEO or discovering new chemical propellants – Apollo Applications 40 years ago really looked into all that – unless you want to go nuclear, and

    B)even though it is 1960’s technology, we can’t build Saturn V rockets today because we destroyed all the tools and assembly lines for them, and because most of the institutional talent that worked on them has either retired or died.

  19. john personna says:

    NPR did a radio report on Tea Partiers down in Florida, protesting NASA cuts. They clearly got a kick out of it. “Small government” types, giving really weak rationalizations of why this program was appropriate, while other spending was not.

    That is exactly what I was talking about.

    (Brett, “institutional memory” is the kind of argument people make when they’ve got nothing. Why? Because it is neither provable or unprovable.

    But some is obviously false. It is obviously false that “we can’t build Saturn V rockets today because we destroyed all the tools and assembly lines for them”. We build new lines all the time. Every next plane or rocket we build is on a new line. And … apparently despite internet rumors, the old Saturn V plans are safely on file at Marshall.)

  20. Brett says:

    Brett, “institutional memory” is the kind of argument people make when they’ve got nothing. Why? Because it is neither provable or unprovable.

    Sure it is. A program gets canceled, the engineers and technicians involved dissipate into retirement and the private sector. It’s very, very provable.

    It is obviously false that “we can’t build Saturn V rockets today because we destroyed all the tools and assembly lines for them”. We build new lines all the time. Every next plane or rocket we build is on a new line.

    Did you feel a breeze as the point went sailing over your head? I pointed out that it is extremely difficult to re-start a major line or program (like the Saturn V rockets) once you’ve destroyed most of the equipment for making them and scattered the people involved. Your comment does nothing to address that.

    And … apparently despite internet rumors, the old Saturn V plans are safely on file at Marshall.)

    Having the plans on micro-film does not equal having the production capability to make them. I would have though that would be obvious, but I suppose not.