May 12, 2010 ... The Senate Science Committee meets to discuss the future of U.S. human space flight. Starting at the one hour forty-eight minute mark, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan testify to criticize President Obama's space policies.
An old Dog will learn no Tricks.
— Nathan Bailey, Divers Proverbs, 1721
When President Barack Obama visited Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, he gave a speech that shook to its foundation the space-industrial complex.
For nearly a half-century NASA, its aerospace contractors, and the politicians who represented them practiced business the same way. NASA, they insisted, was all about big programs that supposedly “inspire” people by spending tens of billions of dollars every year in the states and districts of those on the Congressional space committees. It was simply not permitted to question whether the benefit was worth the cost.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed the Moon program not because he was an explorer, but because of national prestige. The word “prestige” repeatedly appears in Kennedy administration documents as the primary benefit of the Apollo program.
The public perception was quite different, and remains so to this day thanks to Kennedy's mythological “Moon speech” at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Kennedy said the United States would achieve great things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In private, however, his position was quite different, as evidenced by the transcript of a November 21, 1962 meeting between Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb, and various government budget officials.
Kennedy told Webb:
But I do think we ought get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the Agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. I think that that is the position we ought to take. Now, this may not change anything about that schedule, but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good; I think we ought to know about it; we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in this time or fashion, is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.
This was two months after the Rice speech.
The astronauts were on the front line of this great Space Race. Kennedy invited them to the White House and toured with them when he visited Cape Canaveral.
After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the Moon program was seen as fulfilling Kennedy's legacy, and with that came the knighting of the astronauts. Needless to say, this would be pretty heady stuff for test pilot engineers who, only a few years before, thought they'd be spending their lives flying cutting-edge aerospace technology. Now they were to bring back the Holy Grail filled with Moon rocks to fulfill the promise of Camelot and its fallen king.
In the real world, of course, Congress couldn't wait to cut the NASA budget, and even before Neil Armstrong set a foot on the Moon NASA spending was reduced. Within five years, it went from $5.9 billion in 1966 to $3.7 billion in 1970.
The astronauts, for the most part, had bought into the vision, and once the Moon program ended many of them yearned for another administration to resurrect Apollo, just as with Arthurian mythology the great king is prophesized to return from Avalon to save England in its hour of greatest need.
The Obama administration shocked the space-industrial complex in early 2010 when it proposed the cancellation of Constellation, a 2004 Bush administration program that promised the Moon but delivered little while wasting billions of dollars. Constellation's first program was to build Ares I, nominally to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, but it would be funded by deorbiting the ISS, therefore it had no purpose. That was fine with the space-industrial complex, but not with the President and his new NASA management.
April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama speaks at Kennedy Space Center.
In his April 15, 2010 KSC speech Obama said:
But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.
But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.
All that has to change.
Obama proposed saving the ISS by cancelling Constellation. The ISS would be extended to 2020. The savings would be used to prime the commercial space pump, speeding up the development of new cargo and crew vehicles. NASA would also invest in new propulsion technologies hoping to reduce the time it would take for human spaceflight to asteroids and one day to Mars.
The Apollo astronauts, for the most part, were enraged.
“Obama cancelled the space program!” became their mantra, although anyone who watched or read his speech could find for themselves that the truth was the opposite.
In May 2010, Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan published a joint letter savaging Obama. They claimed the President had set America “on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.” They also dismissed “NewSpace,” writing that “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.”
History has proven them wrong.
For about $700 million, NASA has worked with NewSpace contractors to develop 21st Century robotic spacecraft that deliver cargo to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon has berthed three times at the ISS, and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus awaits its berthing demonstration later this week. $700 million was the cost for one Space Shuttle flight. It's estimated that it would have cost NASA on its own about four times as much to develop this technology.
A year later, in May 2011, the three Apollo astronauts penned a second editorial ridiculing the President's program.
Obama's advisers, in searching for a new and different NASA strategy with which the president could be favorably identified, ignored NASA's operational mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy's vision and the will of the American people.
But the truth is that Kennedy's supposed “vision” was to simply show the world U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union. Mission accomplished.
The Obama administration's vision is to unleash American enterprise, ingenuity and innovation by allowing the private sector to do what it does best. No longer will a bureaucracy hamstrung by competing political parochial interests waste billions on programs that never go anywhere, do anything, or innovate any more.
The three astronauts concluded:
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.
A bit arrogant of them, in my opinion, to presume to know what Kennedy would think — especially since the evidence is overwhelming that by late 1963 he was seriously concerned about Apollo budget overruns. In that year, Kennedy commissioned three different reviews of the Moon program, questioning if it was worth the cost. In September 1963, he appeared before the United Nations and proposed the U.S. and U.S.S.R. combine their space programs.
And as for their claim that “the voyage is over,” that's also obviously untrue as astronauts remain in orbit aboard the ISS — in low Earth orbit, where we've been since 1981.
One is left wondering if they're grossly misinformed, if they're lying for partisan political interests, or if someone wrote it for them as a political screed and asked them to sign it.
Armstrong passed away in 2012, and Cernan to my knowledge remains unrepentant.
Lovell, however, has shown that an old sea dog can learn new tricks.
In a shocking September 23, 2013 column published in Space News, Lovell acknowledged that the NewSpace course is the correct one.
Some in Congress are at this very moment talking once again about forcing NASA to establish a program to sustain a human presence on the Moon. I, unfortunately, am not optimistic as we have been here before.
But there is hope. The private sector is stepping up to meet the challenge: an ambitious startup, the Golden Spike Co., is leading the way in creating commercial models to mount human expeditions to the surface of the Moon for nations, companies and individuals.
Until now I have been very doubtful and indeed critical of many existing commercial space ventures that are largely funded by taxpayer dollars. But after several meetings with Golden Spike executives, including the chairman of its board — my old friend — former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin, I became convinced that we truly are on the cusp of a brand new era of commercial lunar space travel.
In his concluding remarks, Lovell recommends:
In fact, NASA itself should look carefully at what Golden Spike is doing and incorporate its plans into America’s national space ambitions. The agency, in my opinion, should be among Golden Spike’s first customers and biggest allies.
And that's exactly what NASA is doing, through its March 2013 unfunded Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace.
With Armstrong's passing, Lovell might be the most famous Apollo-era astronaut thanks to the Apollo 13 movie. (Or Buzz Aldrin; but in general he has supported Obama's program and was present at KSC that April day when the President gave his speech.) Lovell's embracement of NewSpace undercuts the claims of its critics that “America's heroes” oppose Obama's space program. Lovell, Aldrin, and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart are Apollo-era astronauts who have publicly declared that commercial space has arrived.
It seems that an old dog can be taught new tricks after all.