Since instantly becoming the most famous space traveler ever to ride a rocket in 1969, Neil Armstrong has largely avoided the public eye. When he does have something to say, he makes it count, as he did Thursday when he told a congressional committee that the current state of U.S. spaceflight is “embarrassing.”
Speaking as part of a four-person space expert panel appearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Armstrong lamented the cancellation of the space shuttle program earlier this year and warned that it could cause America to lose its leadership position as a space traveling nation.
“For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable,” he said. “A lead, however earnestly and expensively won, once lost, is nearly impossible to regain.”
American spaceflight has taken hits beyond the loss of the shuttle program in recent months, including President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation program—which would have sent astronauts back to the moon—and instead calling on NASA to develop options for deeper space travel to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030.
Though some private companies hope to develop new space-capsule technology by 2015, right now Russia’s Soyuz capsule system is the only method for sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Armstrong wasn’t the only former astronaut to slam the current state of U.S. spaceflight Thursday. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan—the last man to walk on the moon—went so far as to call on the committee to bring the shuttles out of retirement.
“Get the shuttle out of the garage down there at Kennedy [Space Center], crank up the motors and put it back in service.
“You want a launch vehicle today that will service the ISS? We’ve got it sitting down there. So before we put it in a museum, let’s make use of it. It’s in the prime of its life, how could we just put it away?”
Cernan called the spaceflight developments following the cancellation of Constellation a “mission to nowhere,” and said America is already ceding space leadership back to Russia.
“Today, we are on a path of decay. We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishment as the leader in human space exploration,” Cernan said. “As unimaginable as it seems, we have now come full circle and ceded our leadership role in space back to the same country—albeit by a different name—that spurred our challenge five decades ago.”
What do you think? What should the future of American space travel be?