It may be that in space, no one can hear you scream, but there are a lot of raised voices right now when it comes to President Obama's plans for US space exploration.
The day before President Obama heads to Cape Canaveral to announce his plans for NASA, the White House finds itself under attack by a team of former astronauts who object to his proposed changes as laid out in his budget — though the president, under fire, has since revised some of those plans.
In a letter to President Obama, former Apollo commanders Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan called "devastating" the president's cancellation of the "Constellation" program, which they describe as a blueprint to "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."
"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," they wrote, as first reported by NBC's Jay Barbree. "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."
White House officials that the astronauts were also criticizing decisions that the president had rescinded — such as the elimination of the space capsule Orion, which the president is now proposing as an escape vessel for the International Space Station, and the creation of a heavy lift rocket to send astronauts farther than ever into space within five years. Officials also noted that last August, a blue ribbon panel, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, concluded that Constellation "probably isn't executable with the funds that are available today," in the words of panel chair Norm Augustine.
But the Constellation program is clearly headed for the chopping block, and while the president's plan increases NASA’s budget by $6 billion over 5 years, it also relies on private companies — not NASA — to fly to the International Space Station.
Former NASA engineer and author Homer Hickam wrote a letter to the astronauts of the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas, telling them that the president's "plan means no more of you are going to fly into space except for maybe a few every year (for a little while) as passengers with the Russians. For those few of you who get to play spam in the can, we taxpayers get to pay through the nose to the tune of fifty million dollars for each seat you occupy."
Wrote Hickam: "In my opinion, the only people left who can derail the end of NASA are you, the astronauts. During my entire time at NASA, every engineer, manager, technician, and janitor deferred to you. We treated you like gods. Nothing you said was ever wrong. How about giving a little back now? Stop this thing. Stand up and tell the world the emperor isn't wearing any clothes, that the space program he touts will destroy your hopes and dreams, not to mention all those who have supported you so well. What are you waiting for?"
President Obama's new proposal is backed by Armstrong's crew mate Buzz Aldrin — the second man to step on the moon — who has praised the new path as a way to keep down costs while developing new technology to that will allow us to carry the U.S. farther and faster into space than ever before.
"A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our Nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century," Aldrin wrote earlier this year. "I also believe the steps we will be taking following the President’s direction will best position NASA and other space agencies to send humans to Mars and other exciting destinations as quickly as possible."
Wrote Aldrin: "To do that, we will need to support many types of game-changing technologies NASA and its partners will be developing. Mars is the next frontier for humankind, and NASA will be leading the way there if we aggressively support the President’s plans."