Posted by brandoniswrite on September 26, 2011
WASHINGTON — NASA’s decision this month to move forward with a big new rocket hasn’t stopped criticism of the White House from some corners of the space community, including Apollo luminaries Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan who spoke Thursday before Congress.
Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and Cernan, the last man to leave the moon, both told the House science committee that they were frustrated with the current state of NASA, which now must rely on Russia to ferry its crews to the International Space Station because the agency has no vehicle — either government-run or from the commercial sector — that can blast astronauts into space.
“This past year has been frustrating for NASA observers,” Armstrong said.
NASA announced recently it will build a big new rocket from recycled shuttle parts and a crew capsule similar to those from the Apollo era that together would enable new missions down the road — at a cost of roughly billion annually. But the Space Launch System likely won’t be ready to launch humans for another decade, at least. Efforts by commercial companies to build rockets is ongoing, but their ability to transport crew is years away.
“Today we are on a path of decay. We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishment as the leader in human space exploration. As unimaginable as it seems, we have now come full circle and ceded our leadership role in space back to the same country — albeit by another name — that spurred our challenge five decades ago,” said Cernan.
He suggested that NASA “get the shuttle out of the garage down there at Kennedy,” but that suggestion was largely dismissed by others who were worried about time and cost, including by former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, another witness. Griffin said owning the shuttle cost .4 billion annually with an additional 0 million per launch and that it would take at least two years to get the shuttle production lines ready again.
Griffin was in charge of NASA in the years after former President George W. Bush decided to retire the shuttle and launch a new program, called Constellation, that was cancelled last year after five years and billion (although pieces of Constellation, such as the Orion crew capsule, remain under development).
At the hearing, Griffin reiterated a question he has often asked: “Do we want to have a real space program or not” and again put his support behind a government-run rocket program while casting doubt on the ability of commercial companies, such as SpaceX, to deliver crew and cargo to station.
“Our recovery plan — that’s the word for it — is to depend on certain companies which have yet to show they can deliver the laundry to the International Space Station, let alone the crew to wear it,” he said.
As it stands, SpaceX is readying a test flight to deliver cargo to the station by year’s end with aims to start ferrying crew sometime in the next several years.
Following the hearing, Griffin said NASA’s new rocket program was unlikely to succeed — at least on time — because the billion annual cost wasn’t enough.
“Oh no. No,” he said. “They low-balled it.”
For about a year, Congress and the White House have feuded over NASA’s post-shuttle plans with lawmakers pushing for another government-run program and the White House advocating an approach that relied more on commercial companies, largely as means of reducing costs. The new program is set to cost at least billion over the next decade, although NASA has a long history of cost and schedule overruns.
In response to the hearing, NASA issued the following statement:
“We respect the contributions Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan have made in service to our country, and thank them for helping to pave the way for our exciting future forward. Just as their ambitious missions captivated the nation’s attention nearly a half-century ago, today’s American space explorers are leading the way to even farther destinations that will one day allow the first astronauts to set foot on Mars.
“It is a bold vision laid out by President Obama and Congress, in bi-partisan fashion, to pioneer new frontiers, push the bounds of exploration, and test the limits of innovation and technological development. It is a plan that will ensure America’s continued leadership in space with science missions that will rewrite textbooks, invests in innovative technologies that will put Americans to work in new jobs, and develops new space vehicles to explore farther into the universe than any nation has ever gone before.”
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