DALLAS—Most of the Apollo astronauts, at one time or another, have voiced grievances at how slowly the American manned spaceflight program has advanced. Why wouldn’t they? Since the end of the focused, breakneck race to the moon during the 1960s and early 70s, NASA lost its ambitious mandate to send humans to explore other worlds. Each new presidential administration had a new plan that required scrapping the old one. And America still hasn’t sent astronauts back to the moon, much less set foot on Mars.
Tom Stafford may have more reason to complain than most. He witnessed the rise and fall of American human spaceflight from the inside, and he’s the one who wrote the original plan to use the moon as a stepping-stone to Mars. At 87, Stafford still has a gleam in his eye as he talks about manned spaceflight. But over the years, his plan has been repeatedly picked up and abandoned as administrations changed. The Trump administration and its Space Council is now talking up the moonshot once more.
We caught up with Stafford during his appearance at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, opening an exhibit called Journey to Space. Hordes of fifth graders, museum members, and reporters came to tour the displays and to meet Stafford, who in 1962 was selected in NASA’s second-ever group of astronauts and co-led the group that figured out the sequence of missions to prove that NASA’s capsule could reach, land and return from the moon.
The veteran astronaut is a symbol of America’s success in human spaceflight. But he’s also a sharp-tongued critic of the way U.S. manned exploration has languished in the 21st century. “We lost 16 years,” Stafford tells Popular Mechanics.
NASA: THE LOST YEARS
In 1990, Vice President Dan Quayle and the NASA leadership asked Stafford to chair a committee to create a plan for a new moonshot. Eighteen years had passed since the final Apollo mission, and this time NASA’s goal was to stay. President George H.W. Bush wanted a plan to go to the moon, then Mars. The study, called America at the Threshold, was a 30-year roadmap that detailed the steps to a lunar colony and Martian exploration.
Shortly thereafter, the plan fell victim to democracy. Peaceful transitions of power are wonderful things, but they don’t lend themselves to space plans that span administrations. Stafford says the Clinton administration shut down discussion of a moonshot. The plan was revived under the administration of George W. Bush, who called it Constellation. But it too died after an election. The Obama administration ended it in his first term.
“If we kept the plan in place that we had until president Obama cancelled it, we would have had American astronauts riding on American vehicles in 2013,” Stafford says. (That estimate is an optimistic target of the program, as sketched out here.)
At the time all this was happening, Popular Mechanics noted that both Bush and Obama were guilty of underfunding the next NASA spacecraft and the return to the moon by billions. But Obama was the one who killed Constellation, and that still irks Stafford and other Apollo veterans. Many expressed it at the time. Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell released a letter decrying the administration’s plan, writing that it “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.” More than two dozen astronauts from the Apollo era signed another letter calling the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.
“IT WAS CALLED THE SPACE SHUTTLE. EVER HEAR OF IT?”
Stafford did not sign that letter. But he certainly is not shy about voicing his opinion about what political whipsawing has done to NASA’s lunar plans. “Obama came in and said, ‘stop.’ You couldn’t even talk about going to the moon.”
Buzz Aldrin was one of the few Apollo vets who supported the new Obama plan. During a trip to Popular Mechanics just before he joined the president to announce the decision, he lamented that his colleagues are not ready to leave the moon behind. “Going to the moon is not a required or necessary step to get to Mars,” he told the editors that day. “If anything, it’s a tremendous diversion that could grow into a federal sinkhole.”
These days Aldrin is singing a different tune, supporting a presence on the moon as a stepping stone to Mars, the exact plan Obama shut down. Just this week he wrote an op-edsupporting the use of “low Earth orbit and the Moon as a testing ground for technologies needed to make possible footprints on faraway Mars.”
OLD SCHOOL MEETS A NEW WAY
NASA used to dictate the designs of spacecraft and rockets to the companies who would make them. Not anymore. These days the private companies design the hardware and keep the blueprints, hoping to create a wider industry in space. At the forefront of this movement is SpaceX, which is delivering cargo to the International Space Station and hopes to launch astronauts there in 2018. They and Boeing are designing new space capsules to deliver the astronauts.
Stafford is not impressed. One of the engineering foundations of SpaceX and Blue Origin’s launch vehicles is the ability to reuse the capsule and empty fuel tanks. But Stafford has a shrewd way of cutting into this progress of the modern day with hard-won perspective. “They want to reuse the first stage, but we’ve been doing that 30 years,” he says. “It was called the Space Shuttle. Ever hear of it?” Most of the shuttle launch system was reuseable, including the solid rocket boosters. “The only thing we threw away was the large orange tank,” Stafford says.
Stafford put his life on the line as a spacecraft test pilot during Gemini and Apollo, flying the first-ever demonstration of orbital docking and testing capsules during reentry. He’s barnstormed the moon in Apollo 10, skimming the surface at low altitudes to map spots for the next mission’s historic landing. So when he speaks about risk mitigation, it behooves his audience to listen, and Stafford says the new way of doing business rides the fine line between risk and control. Stafford remains an eloquent spokesman for the NASA core ethos, where the essence of dealing with any contractor is to monitor them closely. “The issue is safety and trust,” he says. “It’s like President Reagan said: Trust but verify.”
Stafford contends that commercial space is not as cost effective as advertised and its pace has already slowed down as human spaceflight programs have met delays. Boeing and SpaceX are vowing to launch in 2018, amid skepticism from the Government Accountability Office and others.
Ask Stafford if he thinks anyone will launch people into space from Cape Canaveral in 2018 and he immediately shoots back “no.” What about 2019? “It’s possible,” he allows.
WHY CAN’T WE?
Stafford takes the podium at the Perot science museum, his back bowed with age and his voice raspy. But his message is delivered with strength and the message is calculated to inspire the children. They stir audibly in their seats when they hear his credentials as a Guinness Book records holder for the highest speed ever attained by man: a 24,791mph reentry during Apollo 10’s return from the Moon.
He tells them that in just five years, NASA built a spaceport, capsules and rockets to get off the planet and onto the lunar surface. He jabs his finger into the air, and there is a flash of righteous Apollo-era anger: “Why can’t we? Why can’t we do it again?”
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