The longstanding debate in space exploration whether to focus on earth orbital or probe deep space with manned flights took center stage last week at MIT's Giant Leaps Symposium celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.
There's no mistaking where Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin stands.
"We need to establish pathways to permanent residence of another planet," said the second human to walk on the moon. "The moon is good place to do that. We need a new vision for space exploration." Some even think we should skip the moon and conduct more research on Mars.
Former astronaut and last American to walk on the moon Harrison "Jack" Schmitt shares Aldrin's view. In fact, he says the fate of manned deep space exploration was sealed even before Apollo 11 lifted off the launchpad on July 16, 1969. And that was planning for the de-commissioning of the huge Saturn V booster that hurled the Apollo astronauts into deep space, i.e. to the moon and potentially beyond.
"We need a heavy launch lift vehicle. The moon does that for us," he said in an interview. Apollo 17 was the last manned space flight outside the earth's orbit. That was 37 years ago. NASA has three unused Saturn V boosters because it had bought enough of them to use through a planned Apollo 20, according to Schmitt. "They should have been used," he said, adding their "operators" liked them but the "managers" advocating for the Space Shuttle didn't.
Unfortunately, NASA took a hit last week when House appropriators cut 16% from the President's 2010 budget request with manned space flight bearing the brunt of the reductions. The good news for manned space flight is that President Obama a few weeks ago selected former Space Shuttle astronaut Charles F. Bolden to head NASA.
However many Apollo luminaries at the conference such as Mission Control legend Chris Kraft, JFK speedwriter Ted Sorensen and former Grumman CEO Joe Gavin who oversaw development of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module "Eagle" or LEM which stands for Lunar Excursion Module (some excursion!) agreed that manned space flight demands wide support from the President, Congress and the public.
"When there's an accident like Columbia, you actually see public support go up. The national media is not continuously interested in the space program so the public doesn't normally have information about it. Congress reacts to the next election," says Schmitt who supports long term space flight. Schmitt also served a senator of New Mexico from from 1977-83.
The assembled acknowledged that the stars aligned for Apollo program and Gemini and Mercury before it. The Cold War, Sputnik, a dynamic new president in John F. Kennedy and the foundation for NASA laid by
his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower galvanized the country. And the space program took our collective mind off the mounting disaster which was Vietnam.
In one session Dr. David Danielson, program manager of DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency and founder of the now burgeoning MIT Energy Club, said he was already planning a Giant Leaps conference 40 years hence to identify the "astronauts who would transform our energy" supply.
"What will have been their Sputnik?" he asked. Schmitt just might have identified the next Sputnik for the space program.
"China is going to the moon."