21 July 2009

Space Week: Set sights on Mars, Moon pioneers urge

Agence France-Presse
As the world marked the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing, astronauts urged Americans to take inspiration from the Apollo program and go back to the Moon and on to Mars.
Moon pioneers

U.S. President Barack Obama stands alongside (right to left) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, during a meeting on the 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing, held in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday. Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON DC: As the world marked the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing Monday, astronauts urged Americans to take inspiration from the Apollo program and go back to the Moon and on to Mars.

“We need to go back to the Moon,” Eugene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the Moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, told a news conference held with half a dozen other astronauts from the Apollo program.

“We need to learn a bit more about what we think we know already, we need to establish bases, put new telescopes on the Moon, get prepared to go to Mars. Because the ultimate goal is to go to Mars,” Cernan said.

More funding

His call was the latest by now elderly astronauts for increased public backing for NASA’s space exploration programs.

On Sunday, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins urged Americans to take the memory of the lunar landing 40 years ago as inspiration to prepare for a space journey to Mars.

“Apollo 11 was a symbol of what a great nation and a great people can do if we work hard and work together,” Aldrin told reporters at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The crew became the first to accomplish the dream of ages and walk on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969 – an endeavour now remembered at a time when future U.S. dominance in space has become far less certain.

Economic hardship

Forty years ago an estimated 500 million people crowded round televisions and radios to watch Armstrong step onto the Moon’s Sea of Tranquillity and declare: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But the US space agency NASA’s ambitious plans to put U.S. astronauts back on the Moon by 2020 and to use it as a springboard to fly on to Mars under the Constellation project are increasingly in doubt – largely because the costs are prohibitive at a time of economic hardship.

The cost of Constellation has been put at about US$150 billion (A$262 billion), but estimates for the Ares I launcher to put the project into orbit have skyrocketed from US$26 billion in 2006 to US$44 billion last year.

Obama has ordered a close examination of the program, and a blue-ribbon panel of experts headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine is due to issue recommendations in late August.

“With a few exceptions, we have the technology or the knowledge that we could go to Mars if we wanted with humans,” Augustine said recently. “We could put a telescope on the Moon if we wanted,” he added.

At Monday’s news conference, held at NASA headquarters in Washington DC, Aldrin said he wants to see a bold resumption of the U.S. space exploration program, with Mars as the goal.

Life on Mars

“There may be life on Mars and if there is, it’s damn sure we ought to go there and look at it,” Aldrin said. “When we get there, if we don’t find any life on Mars, from that point on there will be life on Mars because we’ll bring it there, whether it’s germs and leftover urine bags, whatever it is.”

Cernan said that although the Apollo program was stopped in the 1970s, he nevertheless had fully expected man to return to the Moon and go on to Mars by the year 2000.

“I kept saying it’s not the end. It’s the beginning, and I really believed we’d be back on the Moon by the end of that decade and on our way to Mars by the turn of the century,” he said.

“My glass has been half empty for three decades at least,” Cernan added, saying the Apollo program’s greatest legacy was “the inspiration to those who follow.”

“Mankind untethered”

Also on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama proudly recalled his childhood memories of the space program and described the Apollo 11 astronauts as “genuine Americas heroes” as he welcomed them to the White House.

“Very rarely do I have such an extraordinary pleasure as I have today to welcome three iconic figures,” a smiling Obama said, standing next to the 1969 space voyagers. “I think that all of us recall the moment in which mankind finally was untethered from this planet and was able to explore the stars.”

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