Washington D.C. - On Capitol Hill, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing discussing “NASA Human Spaceflight, Past, Present, and Future: Where Do We Go From Here?” While two out of the four panelists had walked on the moon, and one was a former NASA administrator, no current NASA employees were invited. And it shouldn't have been a surprise, given the tone and comments during the event.
Highlighting the September 22 panel was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Armstrong's gravitas is such that Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) joked that he wouldn't stop the commander of Apollo 11 from speaking even if he did go over his allocated 5 minute slot, as is customary during such hearings.
Armstrong wowed committee members and the audience by playing a 3.5 minute video mashup recreating the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon with a side-by-side view of the original 16 mm footage out the window of the Eagle lunar lander combine with high quality Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) stills and other Google (News - Alert) Moon imagery. The pictures have been assembled mapped to follow the time and altitude of the Eagle's path to landing on the surface, provide a sharper portrait of the lunar terrain Armstrong saw out the window as he guided the spacecraft to a safe touchdown.
It was a beautiful moment.
And it went all downhill from there. The rest of the hearing could have just as easily been called “Obama hates the space program and NASA is a mess “ from written testimony and orchestrated question and answers between House members and panelists Armstrong, Apollo 17 commander and last man to walk on the moon Gene Cernan, and former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
“NASA, hobbled by cumbrous limitations, has been unable to articulate a master plan that excites the imagination and provides a semblance of predictability to the aerospace industry,” said Armstrong in both verbal and written testimony.
Griffin, who has waged his own personal campaign against Obama Administration space policy said, “Do we want to have a real space program, or not? Based upon our national behavior of late, I believe that most Americans, as well as our partners and competitors abroad, world be forced to conclude that the answer is 'not'.”
“Today we are on a path of decay,” Cernan said. “We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishments as the world's leading space-faring nation. As unimaginable as it seems, we have now come full circle and ceded our leadership role in space back to the same country, albeit with a different name, that spurred our challenge five decades ago.” The cancelled Constellation project has now been replaced with a “mission to nowhere.”
Cernan called for bringing the shuttle back out of retirement in his verbal and written testimony, while Armstrong asked for a review of proposals to fly the space shuttle under commercial contract. Cernan also reiterated his belief that commercial companies wouldn't be able to offer manned spaceflight until the end of the decade.
Griffin declared flying to low earth orbit (LEO) was still a hard problem worthy of NASA's attention and NASA needs to develop its own crew transportation system because using the SLS for ISS resupply and crew was “nonsensical.” He also made a range of declarations at the hearing that are worthy of discussion in a separate piece, ranging from an attack on in-orbit fuel depots to the belief that the U.S. government needs to build a permanent lunar base to build a viable commercial space market since there wasn't enough ISS crew and cargo business to support commercial vendors -- an odd statement at the least, given the competition under the COTS and CCDev programs.
Left out of the NASA and commercial space bashing was Dr. Maria Zuber of MIT (News - Alert) and lead researcher of the recently launched GRAIL mission to gravity map the moon. Zuber, a last minute addition to the panel, offered a rational, well-reasoned discussion of the synergies between robotic and human exploration. Deep drilling is one activity where humans would be particularly appropriate and she hopes such activity takes place one day on the Moon and Mars.
Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.
Edited by Jennifer Russell