By Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, for USA Today
"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." -- President John F. Kennedy, Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961
Was President Kennedy a dreamer, a visionary, or simply politically astute? We may never know, but he had the courage to make that bold proposal 50 years ago Wednesday. The Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin had completed an orbit of the Earth the previous month and electrified the world. The United States had taken only one human, Alan Shepard, above 100 miles altitude and none into orbit. Americans, embarrassed by the successes of our Cold War adversary, were eager to demonstrate that we too were capable of great achievements in space.
President Kennedy called in the leaders of the nascent National Aeronautics and Space Administration for their opinion on any space goal that Uncle Sam could win. They concluded that the only possibility was a manned lunar landing, and that would include all the principal elements of human space travel.
The president decided this was the right project, the right time, and the Americans were the right people.
"Now it is time to take longer strides - time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.
... Let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs."
- President Kennedy
A half century has passed since Kennedy challenged our citizenry to do what most thought to be impossible. The subsequent American achievements in space were remarkable: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab. Our efforts enhanced international cooperation with Apollo-Soyuz, the space shuttle and the International Space Station. The compelling fascination of our space achievements among young people spurred their interest in education.
By 2005, in keeping with President Kennedy's intent and America's resolve, NASA was developing the Constellation program, focusing on a return to the moon while simultaneously developing the plans and techniques to venture beyond, and eventually to Mars.
The program enjoyed near-unanimous support, being approved and endorsed by the Bush administration and by both Democratic and Republican Congresses. However, due to its congressionally authorized funding falling victim to Office of Management and Budget cuts, earmarks and other unexpected financial diversions, Constellation fell behind schedule. An administration-appointed review committee concluded the Constellation program was "not viable" due to inadequate funding.
President Obama's proposed 2011 budget did not include funds for Constellation, therefore essentially canceling the program. It sent shock waves throughout NASA, the Congress and the American people. Nearly $10 billion had been invested in design and development of the program.
Many respected experts and members of Congress voiced concern about the president's proposal. Some supported the president's plan, but most were critical. The supporters' biases were often evident, particularly when there was a vested or economic interest in the outcome.
Obama's advisers, in searching for a new and different NASA strategy with which the president could be favorably identified, ignored NASA's operational mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy's vision and the will of the American people.
"We intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation."
- President Kennedy
Congress, realizing the devastating effects to the plans, program and morale of those trying to keep America in the forefront of exploring the universe and expanding the human frontier, worked diligently to steer NASA's program back toward Kennedy's goals.
Congress passed an authorization bill directing NASA to begin development of a large rocket capable of carrying humans toward the moon and beyond and to continue development of a multipurpose spacecraft based on the configuration that was being developed in the Constellation program. However, the president's 2012 budget reduced funding significantly below the authorized amount for both the big rocket and the multipurpose crew vehicle.
On the other hand, the president's budget had significantly increased funding over the congressional direction in the area of space technology research programs and the development of rockets and spacecraft by the commercial entrepreneurs.
Congress stated that rather than depending on NASA subsidies, the development of commercial sources to supply cargo and crew to the International Space Station should be a partnership between government and industry.
Entrepreneurs in the space transportation business assert that they can offer such service at a very attractive price - conveniently not factoring in the NASA-funded development costs. These expenditures, including funds to insure safety and reliability, can be expected to be substantially larger and more time consuming than the entrepreneurs predict.
The response to Kennedy's bold challenge a half-century ago has led to America's unchallenged leadership in space. We take enormous pride in all that has been accomplished in the past 50 years. And we have the people, the skills and the wherewithal to continue to excel and reach challenging goals in space exploration.
But today, America's leadership in space is slipping. NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing. We will have no rockets to carry humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond for an indeterminate number of years. Congress has mandated the development of rocket launchers and spacecraft to explore the near-solar system beyond Earth orbit. But NASA has not yet announced a convincing strategy for their use. After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
"We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe that the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none."
- President Kennedy
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.
Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan all commanded moon missions. Armstrong was the first man to reach the lunar surface, and Cernan was the last to leave it.