Former Astronauts Oppose Obama's NASA Plan

Thursday, President Obama is expected to defend his vision and proposed budget for NASA, and his decision to cut the Constellation program. His critics include three prominent former astronauts, including Apollo 13 Cmdr. James Lovell.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

President Obama visits the Kennedy Space Center in Florida tomorrow to defend his vision for the future of NASA. His budget proposes an end to the Constellation program, the successor to the space shuttles that are scheduled to retire later this year. American astronauts will ride to the International Space Station as passengers on Russian rockets until private industry develops launch vehicles.

The president's critics include the first man to walk on the moon and two other famous astronauts. In an open letter, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan and Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong describe the president's move to cancel Constellation as devastating and likely to leave the U.S. with second or third rate stature in space. James Lovell joins us in just a moment.

We also want to hear from you. Is it important for the U.S. to lead the human exploration of space? Why? 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jim Lovell joins us now from his office in Lake Forest, Illinois. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. JAMES LOVELL (Commander, Apollo 13): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And we have to note this week marks 40 years since those fateful words: Houston, we have a problem, the Apollo 13 mission that gripped the entire country and nearly took your life. It's been a long time. But we thank you for your performance under those situation. Can you describe the reasons you have for objecting to the president's program?

Mr. LOVELL: Well, yes. There are several. I mean, first of all, let me mention the fact that President Obama happened to inherit a Constellation program that was established by President Bush but he failed to fund it correctly. And consequently, that's why it is a little bit behind time. But now that he faces what he wants to have accomplished in our space activities, let me mention that what he plans to do is not to have any real new goals. And he doesn't understand what the program has done other than just, you know, going into space.

It has a lot of intangible benefits to it. The program was never designed in the beginning to be a spur to education. But in fact, it was a tremendous influence in educating young people throughout the last 20 or 30 years. I'm a member of the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago and we are a premier science center merely based around not just astronomy but also about space education, which is, we think, is very important.

The program was never intended to be a make-work program, the space program, or a, you know, welfare-type program. It was a creative program. But it did provide thousands of people, dozen people jobs in creating the ability for us to go into space. And, you know, we never thought that the space program was being built and we were working about going around the Earth or going to the moon, that it had any benefits at all for anything other than space activities.

But in reality, it spun off thousands and thousands of technical improvements and also to hardware, procedures, materials that, you know, fell down into the private sector, because it was in the private domain, and it's helped out all kinds of businesses that were - had no relation with our space activities. So it was an additional benefit that we have.

CONAN: As I'm sure you know, in your letter, of course, it was first sent to the Times of London and made available to NBC yesterday - but as I'm sure, you know, Buzz Aldrin, another person who's been to the moon, disagrees with you. He said in a piece in the Wall Street Journal that the president is signaling that NASA deserves the full support of this administration in Congress, even as priorities are sorted out and other budgets are cut, he actually improves the expansion of the budget of NASA.

And second, he says getting long-range space flight right requires getting near-Earth orbit perfect and forestalling the moon mission, which is what Constellation was about, in favor of protecting the technologies that will allow us to reach Mars within some defined period is a sound way to go.

Mr. LOVELL: Well, you know, we have to take tests before - or we have to walk before we run. Going to Mars is a nice overall objective. And I don't disagree with that. But in the Constellation program is - step by step development well develop big boosters to do just that. We have barely scratched the moon with regards to looking at the - what the moon can offer in a way of basic science of our solar system and the Earth itself.

But, you know, Mr. Aldrin doesn't really understand - he thinks he's, of course, a rocket scientist. But in reality, he advocates going into the commercial field, the private sector, private industry to develop the booster. And we've already got people that have been developing boosters for many, many years that are funded by the government. Now in the private sector, if there's someone that's willing to build a booster that is better than what is already available, then I'm sure that everybody will be glad, especially now since theyve purchased it and use it.

Right now, I understand that the president is really modifying this slightly to allow the continuing development of the Orion capsule.

CONAN: Right. It would be used as a lifeboat from the International Space Station.

Mr. LOVELL: Yeah. But using a booster that is going to be designed by people that have never had manned-type - manned-rated boosters before to go up. We already have Aries One that can do that. And, admittedly, Mr. Aldrin says that the Aries One that was flown was not the real vehicle.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOVELL: It was not. It was the first stage of the development of the vehicles that was years and years ago by Dr. Von Braun, and building these things stage by stage until we get something that really works. So I think that Mr. Aldrin is sort of, you know, jumping ahead without understanding the total necessity.

For instance, by going with a totally new booster, we also have to look at a total new infrastructure down at the Cape to launch this thing, new procedures to launch this thing. We have already spent - I don't know how many - six to $10 billion in the Constellation development. Are we going to waste all that? Are we going to waste all the talent that was devoted to put that system in place?

Admittedly, the Bush administration did not fund it like it should have. And that's what President Obama is faced with. But to, you know, just give the ability to go into space and fall back as the third-rate nation - and you know what's going to happen - the International Space Station is actually going to, just by the default, go to the Russians. And if we want to go there, we'll have to pay $60 billion per person to go...

CONAN: I think it's 60...

Mr. LOVELL: ...built by our own people.

CONAN: Right now, the price is 50 million, not billion, but...

Mr. LOVELL: Oh, 60 million, I'm sorry. I over-exaggerated there. But...

CONAN: Order of magnitude is important.

Mr. LOVELL: Yeah, it is.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Let's go first to Raymond(ph). Raymond with us from Portland, Oregon.

RAYMOND (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I - the astronauts were my heroes when I grew up and - especially Mr. Lovell. And it's an honor for me to share the air with him. I, however, have to respectfully disagree with him about Constellation. I feel that at this point, manned spaceflight is a money pit, that unmanned vehicles can do the exploration and give the side benefits that he spoke of without the expense of putting a human in space, which is deliriously expensive.

CONAN: So what can we do with manned exploration, Jim Lovell, that we cannot do with robots?

Mr. LOVELL: I don't disagree with the gentleman that's saying that unmanned probes have not been quite successful. We take a look at the rovers on Mars. We look at the Hubble Telescope. But you must remember that the Hubble Telescope was put up there and it was men that had to go up there to repair it because it was faulty when it was put into orbit. And it was men that had to go up there to refurbish it to keep it in orbit to give us all that wonderful information about the universe.

There is a place for unmanned - there's a big place for it. And there's a place for manned spacecraft - space activities for the items I had just mentioned previously.

CONAN: Raymond?

RAYMOND: Yes. I think that there is a place for man in space, but I think that it should be an international effort. And that instead of China, the Soviet Union, the European countries and the United States having separate means of putting man into low-Earth orbit, that we should share a cheap, durable, well-tested system that's safe for the astronauts, cosmonauts, tyconauts(ph), and affordable in times - in hard economic times.

CONAN: And I know you're nervous, Raymond. It's not the Soviet Union anymore.

RAYMOND: All right, sorry.

CONAN: It's okay. It's Russia. Thanks very much for the call.

RAYMOND: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's - here's an email we have from Adam(ph). What are the barriers to human space exploration beyond the moon, is it finances or merely a matter of national will? To quote, is this the worst disaster for NASA or our finest hour?

Mr. LOVELL: Well, I think that we have in hand practically all of the technical knowledge that we need to go, say, to Mars, except the effect of long-term radiation. But the whole idea of actually going there is one of determination to do that, to make it international, perhaps, you know, conquest, not so much the American one. I would suspect strongly that over a period of time, if we put our mind to going to Mars, it will be a consortium of several countries...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOVELL: ...rather than just the United States, to defer the cost or to spread out the cost and to bring prestige to many of the now building countries that are premier space countries like, China is certainly coming to that category, Russia already is, and maybe the European Space Union is going to be that way, too.

CONAN: James Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Glen(ph) on the line. Glen with us from Irons in Michigan.

GLEN (Caller): Yes. Well, you know, I guess I'm really concerned about it because, you know - it just seems like we're kind of getting out of the program, and I think we should be leading the program. We should be on the leading edge of this exploration and technology. The other thing is, so much really incredibly valuable technology has come out of the space program that really wasn't intended to but it consequently has.

CONAN: So you think whatever the price, the United States should lead this race.

GLEN: Well, I think we should always try to be, you know, as conscious as we can about, you know, not wasting our money. But I think that the world has seen just the incredible benefits that have come out of the space program for just, you know, there are a multitude of reasons why, you know - and areas where we really benefited.

CONAN: All right, Glen. Thanks very much for that. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jim(ph). Jim with us from Spencer, Iowa.

JIM (Caller): Yes. Hi. And greetings to our guest from the outlands of space.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, he's now in Illinois. So, that's...

JIM: Well, you know, it's marvelous, what we've done. And I feel like, you know, we've invented something like nuclear technology and are just giving it up to somebody who we may not appreciate. And that's why my comment was that aren't we in danger, if other countries should establish bases on the moon and other places, that we really give up a highly strategic position that were greatly disadvantaged to something as simple as rocks and catapults for attacking surfaces on the Earth.

CONAN: James Lovell, the United States militarily dominates space right now. Would we be giving up tremendous strategic advantage if other countries establish bases on the moon?

Mr. LOVELL: Well, that's a very good point. And we don't know exactly if we become a third rate nation and other people surpass us in space technology, what will befall - what will come out of that with regards to our military awareness or the defense of this country.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next, this is Mary(ph). Mary with us from Detroit.

MARY (Caller): Yes. Hello. First of all, thank you very much for taking my call. And it is indeed an honor to be on the same program with Mr. Lovell. I would just - my comment is a very simple one. I am very much in support of the space program. I feel it is an inherent part of the American spirit to be pioneers and that pioneering for us today is reaching out into space. And the single most important benefit for this is truly knowledge, knowledge that we don't have today and we gained a great deal from the space program today.

And I think that we can't even possibly imagine what benefits we would get in the future. And hopefully, Mr. Lovell could comment a little bit about what would be the benefits of going to Mars and, you know, imagine some of the possibilities of knowledge that we would get.

CONAN: Jim Lovell?

Mr. LOVELL: Well, first of all, we already have, through the unmanned program, quite a bit of information about Mars. And - but the idea of going to Mars manned is something that, you know, we don't always know.

We - when man gets to the surface of Mars, being able to make changes and to observe that is only limited to unmanned, you know, robots and things like that, makes it significantly easier for us to gather a lot more information in a shorter period of time. So in all kinds of exploration, and we have to realize this, that we don't know what's at the end of the road. Columbus certainly didn't know exactly what he was going to find when he made those voyages.

CONAN: He thought he knew but turned out he was wrong.

Mr. LOVELL: He was wrong. And in the same way with going to Mars, we might think that going to Mars, we'll find something like, perhaps with the water some place along the line or life that once existed there, or we might find something completely different. And that's the whole factor of exploration and why this country has always been a leader ever since it was first founded. We were always pioneers, always going a little bit farther, not really knowing what we were going to find when we got there. And Mars is certainly that way.

CONAN: Jim Lovell, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. LOVELL: Okay.

CONAN: James Lovell signed Neil Armstrong's letter to President Obama, released to NBC News yesterday. He joined us from his office in Lake Forest, Illinois.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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