Moonwalker deplores loss of shuttle program
April 30, 2011
Houstonian Gene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon, so he’s experienced the end of a NASA spaceflight program. With the shuttle program now ending like Apollo, science writer Eric Berger visited with Cernan, 77, to get his thoughts on where NASA is today, and where he’d like to see it go.
Q. What are your thoughts as we near the end of the shuttle program in a couple of months?
A. In the shuttle we have the finest flying machine that’s ever been designed and flown. One of the greatest engineering feats in recent history has been the assembling of the International Space Station, which could not have been done without the shuttle. The shuttle is now in the prime of its life. We suffered through a few mistakes and a couple of tragedies; we’ve paid our dues. It’s not even at the halfway point of the shuttle’s design life, and we’re taking them and putting them into museums. We’re left without the capability of getting into space for an undefined period of time, and for me that is unacceptable. I don’t understand the decision to leave this country in that physical state in terms of access to space.
Q. Speaking of museums, what did you think about the decision to bypass Houston for a retired orbiter?
A. What words can I use? It’s deplorable. It’s disappointing. Here we are a half a century after JFK came down to Rice University and said we’re not only going to go to the moon, we’re going to do other things. We’re the birthplace of the space program. The spacecraft were designed and people were trained here, the families grew up here, and we made the sacrifices. Kennedy certainly deserved a shuttle, because it played a major role. For Houston to get a pilot and co-pilot seat from a shuttle is the biggest slap in the face. It’s ludicrous. Knowing what’s going on, having followed this mission to nowhere of the president’s for the last year-plus, being very close to that, if someone can convince me this was not a political decision, I’d be willing to listen. But they’re going to have to spend a lot of time doing it.
Q. NASA has publicly expressed a lot of confidence that the Russians will be good partners in launching our astronauts into space. Do you agree?
A. I don’t think they’ll desert us. They’ve got as much to gain or lose as anybody. I’ve heard reference to the fact that they’re making decisions about “their space station,” and I take exception to that because there’s $100 billion in U.S. dollars that went into that facility, plus the servicing of the space shuttle. I think they’ll be there. I think they’re committed. But I can tell you that they’re as good capitalists as anybody, and as soon as the rubber meets the runway on that last shuttle flight in July, watch out for inflation to take over.
Q. It’s been almost 40 years since you left the moon. At the time did you think it would be at least that long before humans went back?
A. No. Early on, when I came back from the moon, I stood on my soapbox and I said, “We’re not only going back to the moon, we’re going to Mars by the turn of the century.” That gave me 27 or 28 years to be proven wrong. I was.
Q. Do you have any hope for commercial space efforts, like Space X?
A. To entirely turn it over without any oversight to the commercial sector, which is a word I question anyway, is going to take a long time. Some of these guys are highly qualified, but some are young entrepreneurs with a lot of money, and for them it’s kind of like a hobby. Not all of them. But some of them are making claims to get into space in five years for $10 billion. I don’t have a lot of confidence in that end of the commercial space spectrum getting us back into orbit any time soon. I’d like to hear all these folks who call themselves commercial space tell me who their investors are. Tell me where their marketplace is. A commercial venture is supposed to use private money. And who are their users? Suppose we, NASA, have no need for their services. There’s no other marketplace for them. So is it really a commercial venture, or is it not? Is it a group of guys who have stars in their eyes and want to be a big space developer? I don’t know.
Q. Is there anything that excites you about the present or near future of the space program?
A. Well, it excites me that there are wiser heads in Congress, and I believe they will prevail. Since the day Kennedy got up and said we’re going to the moon, the space program has been a bipartisan product. My experience over the last year tells me there is still strong bipartisan support for the space program, from all parts of the country. If NASA honors and respects the law and the will of Congress, we will get a spacecraft built within the management criteria. We will get a heavy lift vehicle that will take us back to the moon and possibly beyond. So yes, I am encouraged by those folks. The problem is there is still going to be an unacceptable gap that we’re going to have live through, three, five, seven maybe 10 years. But if it goes that long we are out of the space business. If we are not flying by the end of the decade, we’re done.