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American Heroes

Memorial Day weekend is upon us, so thoughts of heroes and remembering them are foremost in my mind.

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Neil walks on the Moon, July 1969


Memorial Day weekend is upon us, so thoughts of heroes and remembering them are foremost in my mind.  As a kid growing up in the Sixties, I saw a lot of change in our country. There was upheaval and tension here at home and around the world but the U.S. space program was a shining light that inspired many of us.  America was going to the Moon.  My friends and I dreamed of going and did the next best thing by launching rockets in vacant fields, excited and inspired by the idea of going into space and to the Moon.  Astronauts who flew into space, braving certain death in exploding rockets to fight the Soviets for control of the heavens, were our heroes.

The decade following was disappointing in many respects, but none more so than our apparent retreat from space.  In my exuberant but ignorant youth, I did not realize that Apollo wasn’t about space but rather about geopolitics right here on Earth.  America had won the war of space supremacy.  Unaware of the implications of what that reality meant to manned space exploration, we pressed on, eagerly preparing for a future that simply was not to be.  But our feelings for those men who braved the unknowns of space remained true.  They blazed the trail, setting us on our course, and they hold a special place in our hearts and memories.

The Apollo astronauts were a varied lot and all of us had our favorites -- and a few we didn’t particularly care for.  But we admired all of them.  They did much more than simply play Russian roulette with rockets.  All of them were technically trained people, keen sharp guys with thorough educations and long experience in handling, managing and using advanced technology.  The Apollo astronauts were intimately involved with the design of their spacecraft; they were not “button-pushers” or “appliance jockeys,” or “spam in a can.”  They knew the principles of how their systems worked and could adapt and improvise when things went wrong. They had the “Right Stuff.”

Listening to Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, testifying before the House Space Subcommittee the other day brought back so many memories.  Although I know many of the Apollo astronauts personally, I have only met Neil Armstrong once, very briefly at a technical meeting.  I was struck by his testimony during this House committee hearing.  His words rang so familiar and true.  I have said many of these things myself over the years and most recently argued for them in this blog.

Neil Armstrong is not only a famous, experimental test pilot, he has decades of experience in aerospace engineering and in the management of complex technical projects.  He faced critical life-and-death decisions on both of his spaceflights.  In 1966, his Gemini spacecraft malfunctioned, sending him and co-pilot Dave Scott tumbling end over end, out-of-control while they were near another space vehicle in Earth orbit.  His piloting skills brought the vehicle under control, ending the mission early but saving his and Dave’s lives.  Three years later, as his Lunar Module continually rang out with program alarms of unknown origin, he coolly guided his vehicle over a crater full of large boulders before making a soft touchdown on the Moon for the first time in history – all with less than 20 seconds worth of fuel to spare!  Because his training and experience gave him the ability to decisively, competently and quickly weigh his options, his corrective actions saved the mission.

His testimony before Congress reflects a grave concern over the “new direction” proposed for NASA.  He believes it is a mistake to abandon the Moon and the Vision for Space Exploration without a thorough review of all options and alternatives.  He makes the case that the Augustine committee, whose report allegedly is the basis of the new direction, was configured and given terms of reference in such a way as to assure that some options would be found untenable.  Specifically, that the cost estimates provided by The Aerospace Corporation and used by the Augustine committee to support the case for commercial transportation are unjustified and unsupported by serious analysis, a critical point that others have also made.

Armstrong is particularly mystified by the President’s casual and unconsidered dismissal of lunar return on the grounds that “ we’ve been there.”  And oh yes, he is also very aware that “Buzz has been there” – he was there with him.  Armstrong made an analogy about this change in direction, using the example of courts of Europe in the early 1500s dismissing new trips to the Americas on the ludicrous grounds that, “We’ve been there.”

The Moon is a continent-sized landmass, where we have touched only six spots near the equator on the front side.  Moreover, we have found that the polar areas of the Moon are even more interesting and useful than we had ever imagined or hoped for.  The water found in the polar cold traps could enable the building of an extensible space transportation system, giving us access to all of our space assets in cislunar space, as well as taking us to the planets.  We need to return to the Moon for fundamentally the same reasons Europe returned to the New World – for prosperity, knowledge and the expansion of our civilization – the very reasons so many other space faring countries are currently working toward building a base on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong had a distinguished career serving his country in space on his Gemini and Apollo missions.  He seldom speaks out on public policy, so his emergence in this debate on our national space program is thus significant.  By coming forward to warn us how this proposed new direction will eliminate our nation’s space faring capabilities and leadership in space, he is once again striving to hold a steady course for the good of our country.  This warning comes from someone with considerable experience in space engineering, as well as a former employee of an agency that he knows well, for both its strengths and its weaknesses.  We should reflect on and consider his counsel carefully.  He is a tried and true American hero.
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About Paul D. Spudis
Paul D. Spudis

Paul D. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. His website can be found at www.spudislunarresources.com. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or his employer.

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