To the Moon and Beyond

President Barack Obama's proposed budget for NASA and his plan for the future of America's space program has sparked debate not just with the public but also within the ranks of veteran astronauts.  While some former astronauts, such as Sally Ride and Buzz Aldrin, have come out to support the President's initiatives, others have protested the proposals, especially the cutting of the "return to the moon" program.  Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and Commander of the Apollo 11 mission, along with Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, have objected to the new plan, issuing a joint statement in which they write, "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." (To read the complete text of their open letter, click here.)

Obama supports a system of public-and-private flights, postponing NASA's much heralded return to the moon.  The new plan would cut the current program aimed at getting humans back on the moon "by 2020" -- the new proposal might see Americans back on the moon sometime in that decade, but more dependent on the gamble of private entrepreneurial innovations rather than solely on NASA's public-funded plan and its government-supported research and development. A New York Times article on Tuesday reported, based on conversations with an anonymous source from the President's administration, that the plan would target having astronauts "leave Earth orbit in the early 2020s...destined for the Moon, asteroids and eventually Mars."

The goal is still to eventually have manned spaceflight within our solar system.  My concern mirrors the fears expressed by Armstrong, Lowell, and Cernan, that without a centralized, public mission, spearheaded by an organization like NASA's fully funded program, we run the risk of not achieving the technical objectives necessary to safely send our astronauts on deep space voyages.  A return to the moon, sooner rather than later, is a vital stepping stone to future missions to asteroids, Mars, and beyond.  While I agree that NASA has had systemic flaws that need to be addressed, and that some private sector contributions and resources would prove beneficial, I am afraid that cutting back on NASA's existing plans and decentralizing the process is a misstep that might have dire consequences for the United States supremacy in aeronautics and space exploration.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy stated during his famous speech that "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win...I regard the shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency."

Likewise, President Obama should view his decisions regarding America's space program as a key component of his future legacy. One of the missteps of our space program, in my opinion, was a decision after the Apollo missions to not return to the moon immediately, to not build a lunar station, to not plan for more immediate trips beyond our moon.  I hope the President's current plan is not a further step back from the progress the early space pioneers made.