CAPE CANAVERAL President Barack Obama's plans for NASA could be "devastating" to the U.S. human space flight program and "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," three American astronaut heroes said Tuesday.
Neil Armstrong, who rarely makes public comments, was the first human to set foot on the moon. Jim Lovell commanded the famous Apollo 13 flight an aborted moon mission. And Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan remains the last human to walk on the lunar surface.
In a statement e-mailed to longtime NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree of Merritt Island, all three took exception with Obama's plan to cancel NASA?s return-to-the-moon program, dubbed Project Constellation.
They said Obama's plan to shift the responsibility for launching U.S. astronauts from NASA to commercial companies would be a mistake and likely would take "substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope."
"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 three said.
The statement came just two days before Obama is scheduled to visit Kennedy Space Center to explain his vision for NASA.
Not all former astronauts have come out against the plan. Armstrong's crewmate Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, has endorsed the proposal, saying it will "allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth."
Obama's plan would extend International Space Station operations through 2020 and direct NASA to invest $6 billion in the development of commercial space taxi services for astronauts traveling to and from the outpost.
But it would kill Project Constellation and the Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft NASA has been developing for six years at a cost of more than $9 billion.
"It appears that we will have wasted our current $10 -plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we have discarded," the former astronauts said.
Armstrong, Lovell and Cernan all said the Ares I and Ares V rockets were patterned after the modular concept Werner von Braun employed for developing the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets that took American astronauts to the moon.
The three raised serious concerns about the idea of shifting the responsibility for designing, developing and operating the rockets and spacecraft flown by U.S. astronauts from NASA to the private sector.
"The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned by the president?s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive that we would hope," the astronauts said.
"Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downward slide to mediocrity," they said.
"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."
- Images: The Best Manned Spaceships of All Time
- NASA Chief: Change is Vital for Space Agency's Future
- NASA's Far-Out New Plans
Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright © 2010 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.