No resolve for a US return to moon

Future missions in space uncertain

From left, Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong with President Obama at the White House. From left, Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong with President Obama at the White House. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / July 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Forty years after the first moon landing, it’s no sure thing that astronauts will ever return.

Budget shortfalls, technological hurdles, and public apathy stand in the way of plans to return to the moon over the next decade, then push on to Mars as currently planned, according to current and former astronauts and congressional leaders.

Commemorating their historic mission yesterday, the three members of the Apollo 11 crew urged President Obama to rededicate NASA to sending humans to Mars, expressing concern that the nation has lost its ambition to explore space.

But the new administration is faced with a vexing challenge of what to do after the phaseout of the space shuttle program in the next two years, observers and participants said.

Even newly minted astronauts are unsure what their mission will be.

“There is a lot of uncertainty right now,’’ Kathleen “Kate’’ Rubins, 30, an MIT biologist who was one of nine Americans selected for NASA’s 2009 astronaut class, said from Houston yesterday. “We are at one of those pivotal moments.’’

The issue is expected to come to a head next month when an independent panel completes a review of the current human space flight program, which calls for NASA to return to the moon by 2020 and build a base there to prepare for a longer-term mission to Mars. After meeting at the White House with the Apollo 11 astronauts, Obama yesterday praised NASA’s “inspirational mission,’’ but aides said he will not make any commitments until after receiving the panel’s report.

Yet there is a growing view that NASA requires a more focused plan - one that draws the kind of public support that President Kennedy inspired in 1961 when he set the goal of going to the moon by the end of the decade.

“Does NASA really have a future?’’ asked Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, opening a congressional hearing last month on NASA’s future.

“People refer to what has been done,’’ he added. “Very few refer to what might be done. It’s drifting. I think that’s irrefutable.’’

Part of the problem, specialists say, is simply money. While NASA’s proposed budget for next year - $18.6 billion - would be 5 percent more than this fiscal year, that level of funding will not be enough to sustain the human space flight program and NASA’s other activities, including earth science and unmanned space missions, according to Representative Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who is chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee.

“Flat funding . . . would make it very difficult to make progress on a number of important programs, including the exploration initiative,’’ he said in a recent budget hearing.

Another major hurdle is technology. Efforts to build a rocket capable of launching future spacecraft have encountered serious problems. The panel of specialists set to report next month has signaled that it believes NASA will need to scrap the Ares I rocket, which has cost an estimated $3 billion over the past four years.

The back-to-the-moon-and-on-to-Mars program, known as Constellation, is estimated to cost at least $150 billion. And other major leaps in technology that will be needed could significantly increase the price tag, specialists say.

Jay Apt, a Springfield native who flew on four shuttle missions and now teaches engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said among them will be shortening how long it would take to travel vast distances and finding ways to generate enough water for the crew.

He said it would take more than seven months with current propulsion technology to reach Mars, a trip that could be cut to as little as one month with much more powerful plasma engines - a system in early testing that would use radio waves to superheat rocket fuel such as hydrogen.

Apt took part in a study by the National Academy of Sciences that recommended earlier this month that the International Space Station be used solely to research how to tackle the challenges of long-distance space flight.

Many of them will be biological - Rubins’s area of expertise. “Learning how humans can really live in space for extended periods of time presents us with formidable challenges,’’ the astronaut candidate said, including cellular and muscular loss.

Meanwhile, there remain deep disagreements over where to go first.

Apollo 11 crew member Michael Collins recently expressed concern that a moon mission would divert attention from the ultimate goal of reaching Mars. And Apt believes the next step should be a mission to an asteroid, followed by one to Phobos, one of Mars’s two moons. Returning to the moon, he said, “does not expand the frontier.’’

Regardless, winning the kind of overwhelming public support that existed at the height of the Apollo program - when the United States was locked in a space race with the Soviet Union - could be difficult.

A new Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans - 58 percent - believes the benefits of the space program are worth the expense. But while nearly 60 percent also said they support current funding levels or an increase in investment, that share has steadily decreased over the past 25 years.

The Pew Research Center also found in May that 12 percent of Americans cited the moon landing or space exploration in general as the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century - down from 18 percent a decade ago.

One rallying point may be competition from other nations, such as China, which has pledged to send humans to the moon by 2012. But many see far more benefits than technological advances for any one nation.

“Forty years ago when we reached the moon people around the globe didn’t say the Americans had done that. They said, ‘We did that,’ ’’ said Apt.

Despite the challenges, he believes NASA can reach Mars at a reasonable cost. “It’s not a pipe dream,’’ he said. “But it requires thinking the whole thing through.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at