Cancelling the Constellation program - the successor to America's historic space shuttle program-is a huge mistake, but that is exactly what President Obama plans to do. He told folks at the Kennedy Space Center that he is also abandoning returning to the moon. Instead, he plans to send astronauts to asteroids and, eventually, to Mars.
Obama wants private companies to take over shuttling astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, but until that happens, the U.S. would pay $50 million a pop for our astronauts to hitch a ride on Russian spacecraft.
In abandoning a lunar program, the president missed the point. It is not about "been there, done that;" it is about having a place from which to launch deep space missions - like his mission to Mars - test new technologies and develop limitless supplies of clean energy.
The moon is a valuable resource just waiting to be developed by some enterprising nation.
Space physicist David Criswell believes it could supply clean renewable energy for our entire planet. He and others envision a series of lunar power facilities to capture massive amounts of solar energy and beam it back to Earth. The moon receives more than 13,000 terawatts of energy and harnessing one percent of that energy could satisfy our planetary needs.
Apollo 17 astronaut Dr. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, a geologist and one of the last two people to walk on the moon, believes Helium 3 found on the moon is the key to the second generation of fusion reactors. A light non-radioactive isotope, Helium 3 is rare on Earth but plentiful on the moon, and scientists believe it could produce vast amounts of electricity.
Potential lunar colonization got a healthy boost a year ago when ice was discovered by NASA scientists at its south pole. That means there could be drinking water, oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel on the moon itself.
China sees the strategic advantage of establishing bases on the moon and plans to start within 10 years.
Ironically, the United States is the clear leader in lunar technology. We have an experienced corps of veteran astronauts, so Obama's plan makes no sense, economically or scientifically.
It is true that the Constellation program has had delays and cost overruns, a particularly thorny issue in today's troubled economy. But this is complex technology, and squandering the $11 billion already invested in it is a waste.
To reach Mars from Earth, Obama's budget funds the design and production of massive new heavy lift rockets. But because gravity on the moon is one-sixth that of the Earth, wouldn't it be far easier to launch Mars missions from the moon? China apparently thinks so.
While some in the scientific community support Obama's plan, many high-profile astronauts oppose it. The first and last men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, said Obama's proposal "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature." Former astronaut Winston Scott, dean of the college of aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology, said, "You can't call yourself a leader if you have to hitch a ride with someone else.''
Encouraging the private sector to provide shuttle transport in the future is a good idea. But that could be a long time coming. American space hero John Glenn proposes that our existing space shuttles should be refurbished and fly at least until the private sector has a proven alternative.
Through decades of risk, sacrifice, heroism and hard work, America has led the world in unprecedented space exploration. Now, the president's plan would have the United States step aside as the Russians shuttle to and from the space station and the Chinese pass us on the way to the moon.
Obama's proposal just doesn't make sense, and hopefully, Congress will listen to the astronauts who oppose his proposal before it is too late.
- Don C. Brunell is president
of the Association
of Washington Business.