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Apollo 17 image
The last two people to walk on the Moon fear that NASA’s new direction will make it that much longer before humans return. (credit: NASA)

Capt. Cernan, where are you?

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In the months leading up to the release of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, there was speculation that the recommendations the committee would make, regardless of their conclusions, would have little effect on Project Constellation, the human spaceflight program of record to succeed the shuttle program. Many were thus caught off guard at the breathtaking decision by the Obama Administration to effectively cancel Constellation in the 2011 budget.

If one reads the committee report in a vacuum, as it were, it all makes perfect sense. It stated that Constellation, with it anemic funding, was on an unsustainable path and subject to further program slippage. Because it was not properly funded to begin with, there was little likelihood it would ultimately succeed. The committee, of course, made its well-reasoned recommendations as to what the United States should do regarding human spaceflight.

If one reads the committee report in a vacuum, as it were, it all makes perfect sense.

One recommendation was to make Mars a more prominent ultimate destination for human space exploration. Of course, before that can ever happen a great deal of research and development must go into advanced space vehicle propulsion to reduce to travel to Mars from years to several months. On the other hand, the Moon remains a very viable goal for the development of new launch vehicles, spacecraft, much longer duration habitats for crews, and possible lunar resource utilization. The cavalier attitude that America has been there and done that and therefore has no need to return to the Moon should be dismissed as short-sighted.

The decision by the Obama Administration to cancel Constellation has thrown the personnel at the affected NASA centers into grave concern and the contractors working on Ares and Orion into consternation. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, has signed on in support of the current administration’s decision in this respect, saying the commercial aspect of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station is the way to go. What to other Apollo astronauts have to say about it?

The crew of Apollo 17 weighs in

Dr. Harrison Schmitt wasted no time voicing his vehement disagreement with the decision to effectively abandon American human spaceflight for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition in Florida, Schmitt stated, “I think it is extremely important, for geopolitical reasons, that the US be the leader in manned space exploration. If it is a commercial effort only to visit the space station, then it is the beginning of the end of human space exploration. Ultimately, you abandon the Moon to China, you abandon the space station to Russia, and you abandon liberty to the ages. If China and Russia are the dominant space powers, then liberty is at risk because they don’t believe in it.”

In May 2003, I had the privilege of interviewing Capt. Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 for my book, Lunar and Planetary Rovers: The Wheels of Apollo and the Quest for Mars. (See “Review: Lunar and Planetary Rovers”, The Space Review, January 20, 2007). He told me his memory of stepping off the lunar surface at Taurus-Littrow: “I remember climbing up that ladder, looking down into those sets of footprints… and I knew very well that I personally would not be back this way again, and that it might be some time before someone else would. But never in my entire life did I think it would be a generation. I thought we’d be on our way, not only back to the Moon, but on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.”

The decision by the Obama Administration to effectively cancel project Constellation has left the last man on the Moon totally aghast.

The new plan effectively puts the United States in the position of relying on Russia to get American astronauts to the ISS for years to come. That is totally unacceptable for a country that regards itself as a superpower.

“I’m angry,” Cernan admitted recently in a television interview. “It’s very shortsighted on the part of this administration. He (president Obama) is somehow unwilling to invest in the future of this country and the future of this country is important to me. We have the responsibility in our country to inspire our kids to do bigger and better and greater things. If someone can find something beyond going to the moon, which turns kids on, I’m all for it. But to this day, I haven’t found it yet.”

A new rationale for human spaceflight

Human spaceflight certainly involves operating and expanding the usefulness of the ISS in light of the heavy investment the United States and its international partners have made. However, cancelling the Ares 1 launch vehicle and the Orion capsule, while pursuing a commercial path to crew transport to low Earth orbit, effectively puts the United States in the position of relying on Russia to get American astronauts to the ISS for years to come. That is totally unacceptable for a country that regards itself as a superpower.

The committee report made it a point to state that NASA consumes a mere one half of one percent of America’s annual governmental budget. The arguments why the United States must maintain its leadership in human spaceflight have been well-established for years. In fact, the heading at the top of every page of the Committee review reads: “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation”. The present administration and Congress has seen fit to produce untold billions of dollars to bail out banks, investment firms, private corporations, and offer nebulous stimulus to America’s flagging economy. Why can’t it provide the needed funds to ensure the United States maintains its pre-eminent leadership in human spaceflight?