Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, told a Senate panel today that President Barack Obama is putting U.S. space dominance at risk with a plan for NASA that relies on unproven startup companies.
“America is respected for the contributions it has made in learning to sail upon this new ocean,” Armstrong, 79, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in Washington. “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered.”
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration would need at least two competing companies to lower spacecraft costs, and it isn’t likely that there is a commercial market that would support even one, Armstrong said in written testimony to the committee.
Obama announced a plan in February for NASA that would end Constellation, a program developed under President George W. Bush that would return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a steppingstone for trips to Mars. Instead, NASA would focus on developing rocket technology that might eventually take humans into deep space and help companies build vessels to carry astronauts into Earth orbit.
In his written remarks, Armstrong said experts in the space community weren’t consulted on the strategy before it was announced. “I believe the president was poorly advised,” he said.
More than $9 billion has been spent so far on Constellation, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the committee before Armstrong appeared. Contractors for the program include Boeing Co., of Chicago, Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and Alliant Techsystems Inc., of Minneapolis.
Closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly known as SpaceX, will carry out test flights in the next five years to show it can haul cargo and possibly astronauts to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, Bolden said. The Hawthorne, California-based company was started in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal Inc., the online- payment service sold to EBay Inc. for $1.5 billion in 2002.
Norman Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin chairman who headed a presidential panel on the future of U.S. human spaceflight last year, said he expects a seven-year gap, rather than five years, between the end of the space shuttle program and the first flight of a new spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts. The shuttle fleet is set to be retired this year.
Russia’s Soyuz capsule will be the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to and from the space station until a new American spacecraft is developed. NASA signed a $335 million contract extension with the Russian Federal Space Agency earlier this year to buy transport for astronauts to the space station through 2014.
The president’s proposal has drawn criticism from astronauts including Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon, who also appeared at today’s hearing. He said it may take a decade -- about three times longer than expected -- to develop commercial spacecraft.
Cernan, 76, told senators that spacecraft entrepreneurs “do not yet know what they don’t know.”
Armstrong, who became the first man to walk on the lunar surface in July 1969, made a rare public appearance during today’s hearing.
Armstrong usually doesn’t wade into policy debates on NASA, although he served on panels that probed the accident that almost destroyed Apollo 13 in 1970 and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on liftoff in 1986.
Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, 80, the second man to walk on the moon, has come out in support of Obama’s plan.
Obama’s plan would increase NASA’s budget by $6 billion during the next five years, for a total of $100 billion through fiscal year 2015.
The space agency has awarded $50 million to companies to develop concepts for vessels that would take astronauts into low-Earth orbit under Obama’s plan, including Boeing, United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, and Kent, Washington- based Blue Origin LLC.