U.S. Space Leadership in Jeopardy, Armstrong, Cernan Tell Senate Panel

May 12th, 2010


The Asteroids, a Destination for Future Human Exploration. Credit NASA

The first and the last of America’s Apollo moon walkers raised concerns before a Senate oversight panel on Wednesday that President Obama’s space exploration strategy could cause the United States to lose its global leadership in the exploration of space.

Neil Armstrong, who became the first 12 NASA astronauts to walk the moon as the commander of Apollo 11 mission in 1969, and Gene Cernan, who became the last of them as commander of Apollo 17 in 1972, outlined their concerns in a rare joint appearance before a Commerce, Science and Technology Committee hearing entitled “The Future of U. S. Human Space Flight.”

Their comments as well as those of the lawmakers who took part in the three hour hearing suggest there is significant  bi-partisan objection to the policy outlined by President Obama in his 2011 budget proposal as well as a major policy speech on April 15.

The White House strategy raises NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years to under write the development of lower cost commercial launch services for the transportation of astronauts as well as cargo to the International Space Station. While cancelling the Bush Administration’s under funded Constellation back-to-the-moon program, it begins investment in heavy lift rockets and other technologies to make possible human missions to an asteroid by 2025, to Martian orbit a decade later and one day to the surface of the Red Planet.

However, the presidential strategy threatens to leave the nation without a way of its own to launch American for at least five and possibly 10 years after the shuttle is retired at the end of 2010, making NASA vulnerable to an expensive “bail out” of the private companies that might fail in their efforts to deliver a reliable space taxi service, the bookend moon walkers cautioned.

“Having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident. The most experienced rocket engineers with whom I have spoken believe that will require many years and substantial investment to reach the necessary level of safety and reliability,” said Armstrong, 79.

The Apollo 11 commander expressed particular concern with the way the Obama strategy emerged, with little evidence of vetting by NASA leaders, the Pentagon and recognized engineering experts in the wider aerospace community.

“I believe the president was poorly advised,” Armstrong told the panel.

“So far, our national investment in space exploration and our sharing of the knowledge gained with the rest of the world, has been made wisely and has served us very well,” he testified. “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will sure step in where we have faltered.”

Cernan, 76, was more critical. “This budget proposal presents no challenges, had no focus, and in fact is a blue print for a mission to nowhere,” he told the panel.

The Apollo 17 commander urged lawmakers to overturn the White House strategy, replacing it with destination driven goals and timelines that will prompt advances in science and technology reaching far beyond space exploration.

“Now is the time for wiser heads in the Congress to prevail,” Cernan said. “Now is the time to over rule this administration’s pledge to mediocrity. Now is the time to be bold, innovative and wise in how we invest in the future of America.”

Early in the hearing, White House science adviser John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden defended the president’s space objectives. They noted an exhaustive review of the Constellation Program last year by an independent panel chaired by Norm Augustine, a veteran aerospace executive, found Constellation unsustainable without substantial additional funding.

“The president heard from a lot of people in this process, he heard from me, he heard from Administrator Bolden,” Holdren testified. “That does not mean he took everybody’s advice, but he did hear it and he weighed it. Then as presidents must, he arrived at a position that balances all of the relevant consideration out of the process. He got to the best and most balanced program for NASA, including its human space flight dimension, that the country can afford.”

In his own testimony, Augustine said his panel believed NASA will have difficulty resuming the deep space exploration last undertaken by the Apollo program without $3 billion in additional annual funding.

During his April 15 remarks, Obama made concessions to earlier Congressional criticism by assigning a new role to the Orion crew exploration capsule that was facing cancellation as part of Constellation.

Orion will survive as a crew life boat for the space station.

A less capable version of Orion will be launched and docked to the station without a crew, serving as a test bed for new automated rendezvous and docking technologies. It will also serve as the prototype for a command module for future deep space exploration missions. 

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, questioned the emphasis the administration was placing on human space exploration, stressing his belief that NASA must also invest in aeronautics, science and education.

“We have to stop doing things in exactly the same way,” he said.

U. S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, the panel’s ranking Republican, called for a two-year extension of NASA’s shuttle program to ensure support for space station research.

“We have a lot of ideas floating around,” said U. S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. “And we don’t seem to have a plan.”