April 14, 2010

Astronauts At Odds With Obama’s Space Plans

Former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are in disagreement over President Obama's new NASA directive, with Armstrong criticizing the president for revisions to America's space program that could affect the leadership of the country in the global space race.

Armstrong, along with fellow astronauts James Lovell and Eugene Cernan, said the proposal is "devestating" in a letter obtained by NBC News. The letter was signed by all three men.

The proposal, which Obama plans to lay out at a conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, calls for the cancellation of the space program Constellation, which aimed to send astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2020.

Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin has defended Obama's plans. "We need to be in this for the long haul, and this program will allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth," Aldrin said in a separate statement provided by the White House.

Although cancelling the Constellation program, Obama is actually proposing to increase NASA's budget. The United States has already spent more than $10 billion on the $108 billion Constellation budget. Obama wants to outsource most of NASA's current manned programs to the private business sector, which could develop and build rockets to ferry American astronauts into space.

The termination of the program is facing resistance from Congress, many of whom are concerned about the job losses it would create. The administration counters that the new proposal would create 2,500 more jobs at the Kennedy Space Center than would have been expected under the current space program.

Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell, however, are more concerned with how the proposal could jeopardize the United States' position as a leader in space. They said that commercial spaceships would most likely not be available as soon as expected and that the US would have to rely on Russia for space transportation for a much longer period of time.

"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," the astronauts wrote. "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."

The Obama administration said that the US could end its reliance on the Russian space agency more quickly with the development of private-sector rockets than it could with the Constellation Ares rockets, according to CBS News analyst William Harwood.

Aldrin agreed, saying "The steps we will be taking following the President's direction will best position NASA and other space agencies to send humans to Mars and other exciting destinations as quickly as possible."

The letter, written by the three veteran astronauts, is detailed below.

"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.

"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 ten plus billion dollar investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.

In a letter released on Monday, 27 NASA veterans - including Eugene Kranz, the flight director who presided over the safe return of the crew on the crippled Apollo 13 in 1970 - urged the President to reconsider the "misguided proposal."


Image Caption: Aldrin stands next to the Passive Seismic Experiment Package with the Lunar Module in the background. Credit: NASA


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