Armstrong and Obama: The abandonment of the US Manned Space Program

Armstrong and Obama: The abandonment of the US Manned Space Program

When the first man on the moon died Aug. 25 President Barack Obama tweeted: “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.” Armstrong’s final comment on Obama, on the other hand, was that the president’s policy on manned space flight was “devastating” and condemned the United States to “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”

Armstrong’s statement came two years ago when three Americans who had walked on the moon including, James Lovell the commander of Apollo 13, Eugene Cernan the commander of Apollo 17 and Armstrong himself published an open letter to Obama. In their letter they pointed out that his new space policy effectively ended American participation in the human exploration of deep space.

Armstrong was famously reluctant to give media interviews. It took something as hugely short-sighted as Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010 to make him speak out in public. But when he did, he certainly did not mince words.

“We will have wasted our current $10 billion plus investment in Constellation,” he said, “and equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded. For the United be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit...destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

If NASA (the National Aviation and Space Administration) wants to put an American into space now, it has to buy passage on a Russian rocket, which is currently priced at over $50 million per seat. By 2015 the Chinese will probably be offering an alternative service (which may bring the price down), and before long India may be in the business as well. But the United States won’t.

There is likely to be a gap of anywhere from five to ten years between the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet last year and the first new American vehicles capable of putting a human being into space. Even then it will only be into low Earth orbit. None of the commercial vehicles now being developed will be able to do what the Saturn rockets did 41 years ago when they sent Armstrong and his colleagues to the moon.

Armstrong was a former military officer who would never directly call the president of the United States a liar or a fool, but his words left little doubt of what he really thought. “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,” he said. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

This is not a global defeat for manned exploration of the solar system. The Russians are talking seriously about building a permanent base on the moon, and all the major Asian contenders are working on heavy-lift rockets that would enable them to go beyond Earth orbit. It’s just an American loss of will, shared equally by Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“I know China is headed to the moon,” Romney told a town hall audience in Michigan in February. “They’re planning on going to the moon, and some people say, oh, we’ve got to get to the moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China. It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” His statement was arrogant, complacent, and wrong.

Americans went to the moon a long time ago, but the point is they can’t get there now and won’t be able to for a long time to come. Which is why, in an interview fifteen years ago, Armstrong told BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh: “The dream remains. The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back, in time.” It will, but probably not in the United States.