Battle of the Moonwalkers

Battle of the Moonwalkers

Buzz Aldrin hitches a ride on Air Force One to support the president as Neil Armstrong and other Apollo vets decry the administration’s new plan.

When President Barack Obama finally details (and defends) his plan for the future of manned spaceflight in Florida this Thursday, he will face opposition from a slew of Apollo-era astronauts who are disappointed that the budget cuts near-term plans for a moonshot. But one lunar-walking astronaut will be in the president’s corner—Buzz Aldrin.

Aldrin, an Apollo 11 veteran and the second man to walk on the moon, is hitching a ride on Air Force One tomorrow morning as Obama heads to Kennedy Space Center to unveil the administration’s plan. He will then speak as a member of a panel discussing the future of NASA. Aldrin met President Obama in 2009 during a White House ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but the pair have never had a conversation about the future of space, Aldrin says. However, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy recently released a letter from the astronaut that supported the president’s position, and Aldrin says he enjoys a relationship with Norm Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin head who led the commission that reviewed NASA’s plans for human spaceflight.

Aldrin prefers that NASA forgo our moon in favor of a trip to the Martian moon Phobos and then a permanent settlement on the Red Planet itself. President Obama’s proposed $3.8 trillion federal budget request cuts NASA’s moonshot Constellation program, which has cost $9 billion over six years, instead proposing to hire private contractors to fly resupply missions to the International Space Station. It also focuses research money on new rockets that could one day be used to send astronauts into Mars, its moons or an asteroid. The plan now includes $40 million to safeguard jobs lost when the space shuttle retires and devotes research funds to new propulsion and designs for heavy-lift rockets. “Things are really accelerating. I am very happy about the way the original budget has been modified,” Aldrin told PM during a visit to the offices in New York. “It has a little further to go.”

A majority of Apollo astronauts do not share Aldrin’s views. Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11, and fellow astronauts Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, commanders of Apollo 17 and Apollo 13 respectively, released a letter yesterday decrying the administration’s plan, writing that it “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.” More than two dozen astronauts from the Apollo era signed another letter this week calling the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”

Buzz responds that his colleagues are not ready to leave the moon behind as a destination. “I have asked several of them if there is anything they have heard of that I am doing that they can support, and they say ‘no.’ And I’ve asked some of them to give up the moon and go for Mars and they don’t really want to do that,” he says. “But I don’t think they understand that we’re not going to lose everything just because there are better ways of focusing our attention, other than sending humans back to the moon.”

Aldrin says that Obama’s vision for space—with the current budget laying the foundation, if not specifically paying for the plan—gets explorers in deep space more quickly that the Constellation program. “Going to the moon is not a required or necessary step to get to Mars. If anything, it’s a tremendous diversion that could grow into a federal sinkhole,” he says. “The door is open now, but it will close if we do what we did 50 years ago.” Aldrin accepts that his comments and support for Obama’s NASA plan make him an outlier among his fellow Apollo-era astronauts. “That’s OK, that’s where I want to be,” he says with a smile.

Read the original article at Popular Mechanics

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