I’m as much in love with space travel as anyone could be who never actually worked for NASA. I grew up in the era of space travel, and I was addicted to “Star Trek” as a kid. (I still am.) I’m one of those nerds who hopes that there will always be money for a project called SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
But I also know that the country can’t afford to pay for everything. Some big expensive programs have to be cut, and cutting the program aimed at putting Americans back on the moon seems reasonable. But several Florida politicians, who represent areas around the Kennedy Space Center, are pushing back, insisting the project is necessary. And now, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, has sent Obama an angry letter protesting the plan to cut the Constellation Project.
The decision to cancel Constellation, the project to send astronauts to the Moon again by 2020 and Mars by 2030, was “devastating”, Mr Armstrong said in a powerful open letter to the President.
“America’s only path to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station will now be subject to an agreement with Russia to purchase space on their Soyuz – at a price of over $50 million [£32 million] per seat with significant increases expected in the near future – until we have the capacity to provide transportation for ourselves,” he said in the letter, which was also signed by Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon, and Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970.
“The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.
“It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.”
NBC is reporting that the criticism prompted Obama to backtrack a bit. The White House also released a letter from Buzz Aldrin, who supports the president’s plan. It says, in part:
What this nation needs in order to maintain its position as the 21st century leader in space exploration is a near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies that will take us further and faster – while expanding our opportunities for exploration along the way.
The controversy reminds me of an Economist/YouGov poll making the rounds earlier this month, in which Americans were asked which programs they wanted to see cut to curb government spending. The big winner was foreign aid, which is less than a half a percent of the federal budget.
Annie Lowrey of the Washington Independent posted the following chart to illustrate the poll results. Seventy percent favored cutting foreign aid: