July 21, 2009

Obama, Apollo Astronauts Discuss US Space Program

President Barack Obama pledged to keep the U.S. space program alive for future generations as America celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first American moon landing on Monday, AFP reported.

Obama told Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins at the White House Monday that the July 20, 1969 moonwalk was "an example of how Americans can do anything they put their minds to."

The Apollo program inspired an entire generation of U.S. scientists and engineers, and the president vowed to extend support to the NASA program so that future generations of Americans might follow in their footsteps.

Some 500 million people were watching as Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar lander onto the moon's Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969 to declare: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

However, public interest and government funding for the Apollo program waned soon after, as the United States became entangled in the Vietnam war.

Between Apollo 11 in July 1969 and Apollo 17, in December 1972, only a dozen American astronauts walked the moon's surface before the Apollo program was discontinued for the development of the space shuttle, which was considered to be a cheaper and more reliable method of space transport.

But huge budget overruns and safety concerns kept the shuttle relegated to mostly transporting parts into space to build the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, the shuttle's successor, the Constellation program, won't be ready for spaceflight until 2015 and has been plagued with cost concerns and dwindling interest from the American public.

President Obama ordered a panel of experts to review options for the U.S. human space program, which is expected to issue its recommendations next month.

Apollo veterans urged Americans on Monday to look beyond NASA's budgetary issues and not just shoot for the moon again but to aim beyond it and set their sights on Mars.

Eugene Cernan, the Apollo 17 astronaut who was the last man to walk on the lunar surface in 1972, told a news conference we need to go back to the moon.

"We need to learn a bit more about what we think we know already, we need to establish bases, put new telescopes on the moon, get prepared to go to Mars. Because the ultimate goal is to go to Mars," Cernan said.

Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, called for Americans to revive their pioneering spirit: "There may be life on Mars and if there is, it's damn sure we ought to go there and look at it," he said.

NASA is currently finishing construction of the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations.

But some of the Apollo legends are wary of its relevance to old-fashioned American exploration.

"We've spent a lot of money up there for almost nothing. It's almost a white elephant," Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell said. "Until we can really get a return on our investment on that particular project, then it was money wasted."

"We opened the door to the future of exploration by touching down on another body," said Aldrin.


On the Net: