More than 40 years after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, humans continue to push the frontiers of space exploration, but missions are being tempered by costs, a trend that concerned the astronaut.
The blank check from government that financed adventures in the Cold War-era is no longer available, with today’s missions depending more on the private sector and international cooperation — often because of budget considerations.
Armstrong, who died on Saturday, criticized US President Barack Obama in 2010 for cost-cutting plans that, in part, retired the US space shuttles — effectively ending the US role in sending humans out of Earth’s orbit.
Now, US astronauts — whose predecessors worked feverishly to beat Russia’s efforts to the moon — ride as passengers on Russian spacecraft and hopes for NASA’s own future manned flights to the International Space Station are pinned on private companies, which are trying to build cheaper shuttle alternatives.
Armstrong feared becoming reliant on other nations for spaceflight and believed private companies would take too long to develop new space-worthy vehicles.
“I support the encouragement of the newcomers toward their goal of lower cost access to space,” Armstrong said, and added “but having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident.”
However, US analysts say the country’s space program had no choice but to change, given new global realities.
“The world evolves, humanity evolves, our capabilities evolve and the future of space exploration, therefore, must also evolve,” said Jeff Foust, an aerospace consultant and the editor of TheSpaceReview.com.
For one thing, flights into lower-Earth-orbit are now routine and privatizing them allows the space agency to focus its efforts on more cutting edge missions, according to Foust.
However, there are no footsteps on Mars and many other hopes that were dreamed of when Armstrong and Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin helped mankind make its “giant leap” in 1969 are still unrealized.
Foust said the succeed-at-any-cost mentality that drove the Apollo program to get the first person on the moon cannot be replicated.
That program “was the result of the particular geopolitical factors, that Cold War atmosphere,” Foust explained.
“We need to find different approaches that can be sustained, probably at lower funding levels than we had under Apollo, but over longer periods of time,” he added.
Roger Launius, senior curator and historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, noted that Obama’s cuts at NASA follow two decades of financial slashing since the Cold War ended.
At the height of the moon-landing effort, NASA was allocated fully 5 percent of the federal budget, Launius said.
For much of the 1970s and 1980s, NASA’s share stayed steady at 1 percent, he explained, but “today it’s less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget.”
Still Launius insisted the US space program continues to make important gains — not least of which was landing the Curiosity rover on Mars last month.
Over the next decade, Launius said, “we’re going to send robots literally all over the solar system. We’re doing that now and we’re going to learn more about the cosmos. We’re also sending robots and satellites into space to monitor Earth to understand what’s happening here.