First Moonwalker Criticizes Obama's Space Plan

Neil Armstrong has kept a low profile since his famous first moonwalk four decades ago. But now he's speaking out against President Obama's new plan for NASA.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

President Barack Obama has said that as a kid, he was inspired by the Apollo astronauts.

President BARACK OBAMA: And one of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather's shoulders, waving a flag as astronauts arrived in Hawaii.

NEARY: But the most famous Apollo astronaut, Neil Armstrong, has real problems with President Obama's new vision for NASA. Yesterday, in a rare public appearance, he told lawmakers why. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon.

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Former Astronaut): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Since those famous words, he hasn't said all that much. Roger Launius is a space historian at the Smithsonian. He says Armstrong limits his public appearances.

Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (Space Historian, Smithsonian): He does not enjoy the spotlight. He's made that abundantly clear over the years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Unlike his fellow Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who recently cha-cha-cha'd on the TV show "Dancing with the Stars." So yesterday, when Armstrong walked into a Senate hearing room, the cameras when crazy.

(Soundbite of cameras clicking)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Armstrong didn't speak long. But in his spoken and written testimony, he said he thought President Obama has been poorly advised. NASA's about to retire its aging Space Shuttles. The president wants to cancel the new rocket program NASA had been working on and instead get astronauts into orbit using vehicles being developed by private companies. Armstrong was skeptical.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I support the encouragement of newcomers toward their goal of lower cost access to space. But having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said America could lose its position of leadership if it went too long without its own way to access space. And while President Obama wants NASA to aim for new destinations like asteroids and to end its effort to return to the moon, Armstrong thinks it could be useful to revisit his old stomping grounds.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I do believe that there's value in returning to the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sitting with Armstrong at the hearing was the last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan. Cernan said that he and Armstrong, along with Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, had reached a unanimous conclusion.

Mr. EUGENE CERNAN (Former Astronaut): This budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus and is, in fact, a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another astronaut at the hearing, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, said he appreciated their thoughts, but noted...

Mr. CHARLIE BOLDEN (NASA Administrator): Reasonable people can disagree.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And other big-name astronauts do support the president's proposals. Buzz Aldrin traveled with the president on Air Force One when he visited Kennedy Space Center. And Sally Ride has stated that the new plan is a bold strategic shift.

Now it's up to lawmakers in Congress to listen to all of these space travelers and decide who's got it right.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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