Neil Armstrong – the first person to walk on the moon – recently told Congress that America simply cannot maintain a realistic leadership position without human access to space.
“After a half century in which Americans were being launched into Earth orbit and beyond, [we] find [ourselves] uncertain of when [we] can reasonably expect our astronauts to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) or other off the earth destinations in other than a foreign built and commanded spacecraft,” Armstrong testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on Thursday.
“For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable.”
According to Armstrong, NASA will always have plenty to do in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), including Earth observation and imagery/measurement programs, both from the International Space Station and from spacecraft in other orbital inclinations.
However, the former astronaut emphasized that larger human exploration goals lie beyond LEO, such as Luna, the lunar Lagrangian points, Mars and its natural satellites, and Near Earth Objects including meteoroids, comets, and asteroids.
Unsurprisingly, Armstrong chose to emphasize the importance of returning to the moon, for reasons which he described as “compelling.”
“While visiting an asteroid has been discussed for many decades and the value of reducing the threat of near Earth objects colliding with Earth is unquestioned, the potential value of returning to the moon is substantially higher,” he stated.
Armstrong also seemed rather optimistic about NASA’s recent decision to move ahead with its next-gen Space Launch System (SLS), opining that it appeared to meet the intent of a Congressional mandate.
“It is not a revolutionary proposal. The National Space Strategy of the mid 1980s outlined plans to design and build a new expendable heavy booster with the ability to lift 136 metric tons into Earth orbit,” Armstrong explained.
“In identifying the new rocket as being ‘evolvable so it can be adapted to different missions as opportunities arise and new technologies are developed,’ [NASA] Administrator Bolden make an excellent point. The ability to assemble various rocket stages into a variety of different configurations to meet ever changing needs is vitally important and often under-appreciated.”
Armstrong concluded his testimony by recommending that NASA – riven by conflicting forces and the dashed hopes of canceled programs – must “find ways” of restoring hope and confidence to a confused and disconsolate work force.
“The reality that there is no flight requirement for a NASA pilot-astronaut for the foreseeable future is obvious and painful to all who have, justifiably, taken great pride in NASA’s wondrous space flight achievements during the past half century.
“In space fight, we are in the process of exhausting alternatives. I am hopeful that, in the near future, we will be doing the right thing,” he added.