Apollo Astronauts Split Over Obama's Space Policy
Apollo 17 astronauts pause for a photograph while exploring the moon. Their lunar lander and rover sit perched behind them.
Credit: NASA.

A former Apollo astronaut is upset with recent Congressional testimony by fellow space travelers ? including the first and last men to walk on the moon ? that derided President Barack Obama?s new space agenda.

Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart, a long-time supporter of asteroid research and mitigation, has taken issue with comments from the world's first moonwalker Neil Armstrong, of Apollo 11 fame, and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, the last human to step off the lunar surface.

On May 12, both Armstrong and Cernan told a Senate committee that U.S. President?s Obama?s vision for space ? which aims to send humans to an asteroid by 2025, but would cancel NASA's most recent moon-oriented effort ? is faulty, absent of details and is in need of proper review.

Schweickart, however, strongly disagrees.

?I write this letter, as an Apollo astronaut, to state my strong support for the proposed NASA space program as modified by President Obama,? Schweickart wrote in a May 16 letter to Sen. John D. Rockefeller, IV (D-West Virginia), who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation that hosted Armstrong and Cernan.

?With what I believe to be the coming loss of U.S. leadership in human space exploration in mind, the question of how best to regain that leadership breaks into two fundamental elements; our current situation and our direction going forward. In terms of relative importance I weigh these at 80 percent and 20 percent respectively,? Schweickart writes in open testimony provided to SPACE.com by the former astronaut.

Schweickart has requested that Senator Rockefeller add his letter to the testimony record of the May 12 hearing on the future of U.S. human space flight.

Dead end road

In February, President Obama unveiled a 2011 budget proposal for NASA that, if approved, would cancel the agency's Constellation program developing new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets. Those vehicles were slated to replace NASA's aging space shuttle fleet, which is due to retire this year after three final flights (one of which is under way today aboard the shuttle Atlantis).

On April 15, President Obama outlined a sweeping new space vision for NASA that aims to send humans to visit a nearby asteroid and aim for Mars in the 2030s. A heavy-lift rocket design ? vital for any interplanetary missions ? would be selected by 2015, Obama said.

Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 lunar module pilot and Armstrong's fellow moonwalker, supports the plan. But Armstrong, Cernan and many lawmakers ? among others ? have spoken out against its shift away from the moon and the Constellation, which NASA has spent more than $9 billion on since it began in 2004.

Armstrong warned senators last week that the looming gap between the retirement of NASA's shuttle's this year and the rise of new commercial spacecraft which NASA would seek out for flying astronaut risks ceding U.S. dominance in human spaceflight over to other countries. "Other nations will surely step in where we have faltered," he said.

But Schweickart said a radical change is needed if the United States is to make any progress.

?Our current situation is akin to being on a dead end road,? he noted in his letter to Senator Rockefeller.

?Instead of being on a path toward the goal we all seek, i.e. to regain our leadership position in human space exploration, we must recognize that we are (and have been) on a path to nowhere. We are confronted with arguments to ignore the clear signs of this sad situation and even encouraged to accelerate along this futile path,? Schweickart said.

Schweickart observes that the alternative to this is support for President Obama?s proposed space agenda.

From the former astronaut?s viewpoint, the Obama plan ?recognizes and eliminates the waste of precious resources in the current program and heads us in a productive direction toward our desired destination. In other words, when you recognize you are on a dead end road, stop, turn around, and head in a direction more useful to your goal.?

While Armstrong found utility in a return to the moon, as he expressed during his recent Senate testimony, that view is not supported by Schweickart.

?Why, after 60 years, should we be devoting incredible resources and effort to going back to the Moon instead of to a challenging, pioneering new goal?? he said. "No one is comfortable with the fact that we?ve gotten so far down the road on the Constellation program before realizing the depth of the hole we?re in. ?When in a hole? as the saying goes, first stop digging!? 

The right answer, according to Schweickart, is to ?stop, turn around, and figure out the best new path to regain our leadership in human spaceflight? and toward our agreed long term goal of the human exploration of Mars.?

That new path begins with the intermediate goal of to sending astronauts on a mission into deep space, to a near-Earth asteroid, he added.

Intermediate Mars trajectory

In Schweickart?s view, sending astronauts to explore an asteroid should actually be less expensive than a return to the moon?s surface.

?This is therefore, both an imaginative, new, and logical goal, and a natural step in developing the capability for the human exploration of Mars. Furthermore the public interest and support for U.S. astronauts exploring an asteroid, a new and very different ?world?, would be strong, Schweickart said.

As a well-versed advocate of dealing with Earth-threatening asteroids through his Association of Space Explorers affiliation, United Nations position papers, as well as the B612 Foundation ?a group dedicated to thwarting hazardous objects to our planet ? Schweickart points out that space rocks occasionally threaten life on Earth as the result of an impact.

Furthermore, Schweickart suggests, they are fascinating scientific objects, and they contain -- relative to the moon?s surface - a wealth of valuable resources which may one day minimize the cost of space operations.

Shift in launch services

In a related space matter, as addressed in last week?s Senate hearing, Schweickart said that without a commitment to a NASA shift in acquisition of launch services, the space agency and the U.S. Government ?will be locked into developing and providing well understood transportation services which should rightly be relinquished to private enterprise.?

Schweickart said that ?NASA should, as proposed by the new space program, continue to encourage and assist U.S. enterprise in meeting the performance and safety requirements inherent in flying both cargo and people to low Earth orbit without absorbing all of the cost. This cooperative effort would both minimize the existing gap and bring into being an exciting, new US industrial capability, replete with industrial innovation and job creation.?

However, Schweickart does concede that the endeavor ? as critics have pointed out ? is a risky one.   

?Of course it?s risky. All space activity is risky. But wisely accepting and managing this risk will ultimately lead to a new and exciting U.S. business capability which will be the envy of the world," Schweickart said. "The alternative is for NASA to continue to divert its precious human and economic capital to a challenging but very well understood transportation service rather than toward pioneering new and more advanced technology.?

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.