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Video: NASA icons blast Obama's space program plans

  1. Transcript of: NASA icons blast Obama's space program plans

    WILLIAMS: Good evening .

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: He is a genuine American hero . Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon . And yet since those years he's receded into a quiet life in America . Even in our celebrity -driven era there's no Neil Armstrong action figure, no chain of restaurants. And while he's walked on the moon, he's never been tempted to dance with the stars. But tonight our veteran space correspondent Jay Barbree has exclusively obtained a letter written by Neil Armstrong and several other icons of the space program . It directly challenges President Obama 's reported plans to idle the US manned space program . Astronauts Armstrong , Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan write, and we quote , "Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity." And on this anniversary of the Apollo 13 space disaster , it's an emotional example of the kinds of choices a president and a nation must face. It's where we begin tonight with NBC 's Tom Costello at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida . Tom, good evening .

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi , Brian , good evening . As you know, the shuttle program is retiring this year. Another program , Constellation , was supposed to replace the shuttle program . However, an outside review panel found that that program , Constellation , was -- literally was running behind schedule and had been underfunded. So the president's plan essentially kills Constellation , at least in the short term, and with it potentially a lot of jobs so that NASA , instead, can focus on going to Mars .

    Unidentified Man: All recorders to fast, T-minus eight...

    COSTELLO: From the Mercury missions to Gemini , Apollo and the space shuttle , NASA has been launching astronauts into space for nearly 50 years...

    Offscreen Voice #1: Go at throttle up.

    COSTELLO: ...leaving a legacy beyond moon and space walks , huge advancements in computer technology , communications and medicine. Now, some of NASA 's icons are blasting President Obama 's plans to abandon the next generation Constellation rocket program , in which NASA has already invested $10 billion, and hand over manned missions to the space station to private companies . In an unprecedented statement to NBC News , Commanders Neil Armstrong , James Lovell and Gene Cernan write that the plan "destines our nation to become one of second or even third-rate stature." While in a separate letter to President Obama , more of NASA 's space heroes -- among them Carpenter, Haise and Kranz -- write, "We are very concerned about America ceding its hard-earned global leadership in space technology to other nations ."

    COSTELLO: NASA's new chief is veteran astronaut Charles Bolden .

    General CHARLES BOLDEN: We have to take bold steps . We are a bold nation.

    COSTELLO: But General Bolden ran into trouble recently when he told Congress , "It doesn't matter if China lands on the moon before the US returns."

    Gen. BOLDEN: It will sound trivial, but I don't think it matters who gets...

    Representative FRANK WOLF (Republican, Virginia): Well, it does to me. It does to me, and I think it matters, with all respect, to a lot of Americans .

    COSTELLO: With the shuttle retiring this year, NASA will pay Russia to take astronauts to the orbiting space station for years to come. Losing both the shuttle and Constellation programs means losing jobs. Depending on who you ask, anywhere from five to 9,000 jobs here in Florida are on the line, potentially tens of thousands of jobs nationwide, many of them speciality jobs, like aerospace technician Patti Sunderland .

    Ms. PATTI SUNDERLAND: I'm sad. I'm angry on days, frustrated a lot.

    COSTELLO: Florida Senator Bill Nelson , a Democrat and former astronaut, says President Obama will pay a big political price in Florida if thousands of space jobs are lost. Was this a failure to communicate, or was it a failure of policy and vision?

    Senator BILL NELSON: It was a combination. It is my hope that the president understands that the only person that can really lead the nation's human space program is the president.

    COSTELLO: The White House told us late today that it will announce new details this week, when the president is here on Thursday, that very well may change the minds of some of these astronauts, and it also reminds us that former astronaut Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is on board and supports the president's program . But the president may get a chilly reception here in Florida . For a lot of people here, this is all about jobs. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Tom Costello at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida . Tom, thanks. And, again, this letter has been provided to NBC News exclusively. We have posted it on our Web site tonight . That's nightly.msnbc.com.

updated 4/13/2010 6:49:53 PM ET 2010-04-13T22:49:53

Editor's note: In an open letter obtained by NBC's Jay Barbree, former astronauts Neil Armstrong, James Lovell  and Eugene Cernan urge President Obama to reconsider what they warn would be "devastating" new policies for the future of NASA.

The United States entered into the challenge of space exploration under President Eisenhower’s first term, however, it was the Soviet Union who excelled in those early years.  Under the bold vision of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and with the overwhelming approval of the American people, we rapidly closed the gap in the final third; of the 20th century, and became the world leader in space exploration.

America’s space accomplishments earned the respect and admiration of the world. Science probes were unlocking the secrets of the cosmos; space technology was providing instantaneous worldwide communication; orbital sentinels were helping man understand the vagaries of nature.  Above all else, the people around the world were inspired by the human exploration of space and the expanding of man’s frontier.  It suggested that what had been thought to be impossible was now within reach. Students were inspired to prepare themselves to be a part of this new age.  No government program in modern history has been so effective in motivating the young to do “what has never been done before.”
 
World leadership in space was not achieved easily.  In the first half-century of the space age, our country made a significant financial investment, thousands of Americans dedicated themselves to the effort, and some gave their lives to achieve the dream of a nation.  In the latter part of the first half century of the space age, Americans and their international partners focused primarily on exploiting the near frontiers of space with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
 
As a result of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, it was concluded that our space policy required a new strategic vision. Extensive studies and analysis led to this new mandate: meet our existing commitments, return to our exploration roots, return to the moon, and prepare to venture further outward to the asteroids and to Mars.  The program was named "Constellation."  In the ensuing years, this plan was endorsed by two Presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.
 
The Columbia Accident Board had given NASA a number of recommendations fundamental to the Constellation architecture which were duly incorporated.  The Ares rocket family was patterned after the Von Braun Modular concept so essential to the success of the Saturn 1B and the Saturn 5.   A number of components in the Ares 1 rocket would become the foundation of the very large heavy lift Ares V, thus reducing the total development costs substantially.  After the Ares 1 becomes operational, the only major new components necessary for the Ares V would be the larger propellant tanks to support the heavy lift requirements. 

The design and the production of the flight components and infrastructure to implement this vision was well underway.  Detailed planning of all the major sectors of the program had begun.  Enthusiasm within NASA and throughout the country was very high.
 
When President Obama recently released his budget for NASA, he proposed a slight increase in total funding, substantial research and technology development, an extension of the International Space Station operation until 2020, long range planning for a new but undefined heavy lift rocket and significant funding for the development of commercial access to low earth orbit.

Although some of these proposals have merit,  the accompanying decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.

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 dollars per seat with significant increases expected in the near future) until we have the capacity to provide transportation for ourselves.   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.
 
For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.  While the President's plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.

Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.  America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.  If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.

Neil Armstrong
Commander, Apollo 11

James Lovell
Commander, Apollo 13

Eugene Cernan
Commander, Apollo 17

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