Neil Armstrong -- Right Stuff -- Wrong on the New Space Plan

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rick Tumlinson Founder - New Worlds Institute, EarthLight Foundation, Co-Founder, Deep Space Industries, Space Frontier Foundation, Orbital Outfitters Inc.

Neil Armstrong and a couple of other Moon walkers took a very uninformed and unhelpful shot at the new space program laid out by our new NASA leadership. Unfortunately and as painful as it is for me to say -- Armstrong is wrong. I and many others working on the New Space revolution now underway in space watched him walk on the Moon and it changed our lives. But now he is trying to stop us from taking our turn. And sadly, he doesn't know what he is talking about. He is a great hero, but he just doesn't get it when it comes to the new NASA program and what it will really mean to our future in space. It is sad actually, that he and the others who signed their letter attacking the new plan are attacking a shift that will actually lead to more exploration, more human access to space for Americans and more astronauts stepping out onto other worlds.

Sometimes one small step backwards and a change in direction will lead to a giant leap forward, as this change will enable us to do. Oh, and unlike the Apollo program for which he worked, this new program will allow us to actually stay. In fact this new policy addresses the reasons we weren't able to hold and expand our beachhead on the Moon once this feat was accomplished, and why, some 50 or more years later some of our children believe we never went (because if we did why didn't we stay and keep going?).

As outlined by the new NASA Administrator General Charles Bolden, the space agency is canceling the billions of dollars over budget failure known as Constellation. Based on old Apollo style use it and throw it away government rockets, Constellation had drained the funds and vitality away from President Bush's plans to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars and devolved into a pork barrel jobs program for a few old space states.

Armstrong, in a letter that could have been written by a Senate staffer from one of the states potentially losing its pork funding for Constellation said the new NASA program will destroy our human exploration program. Wrong. It would enhance and enable a much more robust program in the long run. NASA has already been on the "slow spiral to mediocrity" he says this new way forward represents. As one former NASA administrator said to me "It's sad that our current program consists of flying shuttle in circles and waiting for another one to fall out of the sky." The new program ends this dead end period and points us to a new way forward.

Armstrong and company say: "It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation." Yes, they got this one right. We did. Touted as a space shuttle replacement, the Constellation was a slow and very expensively paved road to nowhere. It was developing badly designed vehicles that would have either killed people or simply never flown. The program to develop the Constellation's Ares launch vehicle was more a pork barrel filling jobs program than anything designed to enable affordable and sustainable space exploration. It was based on old style use it and throw it away technologies that will never lower the cost of space travel. In fact, its voracious budget was already consuming the very scientific research and exploration projects it was supposed to carry!

These retired astronauts also question the ability of anyone but NASA to develop space launch systems, which begs the question of how much attention they have been paying to this area since Apollo. NASA hasn't successfully developed a new vehicle in decades. Even the shuttle is a failure compared to its original sales pitch. Remember, it was sold to Congress as being able to fly 50 times a year - it flies 3-5 times a year at huge cost. In the meantime an entire New Space industry is on the rise. There are at least 10 companies in the US working on spaceship systems and even commercial space hotels and labs. And they are all very real, they just need a chance.

In their note the astronauts say: "The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President's proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty." True, it is a bit of a gamble, but I would rather bet on the ingenuity of American companies than face the near certainty of NASA failing once again to do what it says it will do in this area.

The companies working on these systems are ahead of where the Constellation system was, and are doing it far more cheaply. Also, keep in mind these new kids on the block include some old kids. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have both lofted orbiting satellites and are very serious in their development of human rated systems. But the proposed commercial carriers include Boeing and the Lockheed Martin, who aren't exactly newborns when it comes to space systems. In fact the newest versions of the venerable Atlas and Delta rockets also being proposed to carry astronauts into space have more than a dozen successful orbital flights under their belts, um... that would be a dozen more each than Ares.

Instead of re-inventing the wheel, and spinning it in place for another 30 years, the new plan has the government focusing on a new space policy based on developing sea port-like infrastructure in low Earth orbit (LEO) and advanced sustainable technologies for use on the Far Frontier (deep space) while also encouraging the development of a new space commercial transportation industry to carry payloads and people to and from LEO.

This new approach will then allow us to be able to go anywhere we want in space, and be able not only to stay there, but to build up our presence over time, so that rather than flags and footprints on the Moon we can build bases there, and eventually even set up growing outposts on Mars.

By shedding itself of mundane tasks like driving trucks and taxis (it has been 50 years since our government began "shuttling" to and from orbit) not only will the agency be able to get back to real space exploration and stop flying in circles, but it will save billions of dollars and what it does spend on getting to and from orbit will help kick start a new high technology US space transportation industry.

I love the astronaut corps, and want to see them exploring, not doing mundane things that the rest of society hands to commercial firms. It is time to get NASA out of driving trucks and back to exploring. I want future Neil Armstrongs to walk the sands of Mars, or float across the surface of asteroids and tell us what they find there. And then, just as we are about to do in Low Earth Orbit, once they have explored the edges, I want them to move on and let the rest of us follow, to build new places for humans to live and work, creating new wealth and new hope for future generations. After all, unlike Mr. Armstrong and his friends, I believe all Americans if given the chance, can show they too have the "Right Stuff."

Give us our chance Neil. After all, American taxpayers gave you one.