According to an open letter from last Tuesday signed by Neil Armstrong, Commander of Apollo 11; James Lovell, Commander of Apollo 13 and Eugene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17, President Obama’s proposed overhaul of NASA is “devastating” to U.S. space exploration efforts. The letter echoed sentiments voiced last year by the Augustine Commission on Space Exploration, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.
The letter says that while some of the President’s proposals have merit, “the accompanying decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating,” contrasting Obama’s vision for the space program with the “bold vision of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon” who closed the gap in the space race with the Soviet Union making America the “world leader in space exploration.”
“It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation” the letter continues, “and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.”
Last Thursday at Cape Canaveral, President Obama responded to his critics saying, “The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way.”
To critics like Armstrong, who maintain that landing on the moon is a practical first step to exploring the rest of the solar system, he said “I just have to say pretty bluntly — we’ve been there before…There’s a lot more space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do.”
However, the long and vague timetable of Obama’s deep-space plan, which calls for landing on an asteroid by 2025 and a Mars landing sometime in the mid-2030s (as Obama put it, “I expect to be around to see it”) contrasts with the sharp, immediate increase in funding for NASA’s Earth Sciences division.
Under Obama’s plan, NASA’s Earth Sciences programs will receive an additional $2.4 billion funding over the next five years, an increase of over 60%. Edward Weiler, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told NPR “This administration has a clear priority for science in general and Earth science in specific. We’ve got to measure how fast the ice is being depleted, how fast carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere as opposed to being taken out of it.”
While Obama’s plan offers few practical, immediate steps for returning Americans to space, apart from salvaging part of the Constellation program to build a shuttle for the International Space Station, it does represent a major priority shift for the agency: from exploring outer space to studying the Earth from orbit.
His critics remain unconvinced of his plan’s efficacy. As Neil Armstrong’s letter closes, “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.”