WASHINGTON (CN) – As NASA prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first man landing on the moon next week, a Senate panel reflected on that achievement Tuesday while hearing testimony from space pioneers about the future of humanity in the cosmos.
Christine Darden, one of the women responsible for developing sonic flight and re-entry technology – who was also depicted in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” – appeared before a subpanel of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee to express emphatic support for the U.S. return to the moon.
Darden joined NASA in 1967, two years before a man would walk along the moon’s cratered surface. Her accomplishments paved the way for the advances NASA still uses in space flight today.
In five years, if the Trump administration and NASA’s goal are met, the United States will return to the moon, but this time the giant leap will be even greater.
Artemis I, the formal name for the first part of NASA’s two-part mission to the moon, is in its final stages of preparation.
On Monday, the launch tower meant to propel an unmanned crew capsule into space was finally placed on its launch pad. The maneuver heralded the program’s last tests before the real launch gets underway in 2020. If all goes as planned and the systems appear operable after six days in orbit, the next mission, Artemis II, will follow a few years later in 2024.
Artemis II’s crew will be destined for the moon and what was learned earlier will hopefully be enough to establish an enduring lunar outpost.
With an outpost and the creation of NASA’s lunar gateway – intended to be a cosmic weigh station for explorers heading to points beyond the moon – the future Darden dreamed of half a century ago is now tantalizingly close to becoming a reality.
“NASA has already begun the next era of exploration and discovery,” she said Tuesday. “The first American woman and next American man will set foot on and explore the south pole of the moon, where no human has ever been before.”
By 2028, NASA hopes to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon.
It matters that humanity gets there, she said, because it could teach the world how to live and work on another planet, how to understand the universe, and could enrich knowledge on topics from human anatomy to biofuels.
Mary Dittmar, president of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, shared Darden’s enthusiasm at the Senate hearing but expressed concern over funding.
NASA is on track to receive $21 billion from the government for 2020 and though President Donald Trump pledged another $1.6 billion in May to expedite the Artemis missions, it will take at least $4 to $6 billion per year to meet the most aggressive deadlines, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has predicted.
“Super heavy launch vehicles, crews, exploration ground systems, all of these assets are the foundation upon which our goals will rest for the foreseeable future,” Dittmar said.
Going back to the moon with eyes on eventual travel to Mars is celebrated by some while derided by others. When Trump announced the $1.6 billion influx to NASA, several lawmakers and groups like the American Council on Education balked. The proposed funding was coming from a surplus of Pell grants earmarked for low-income college students.
Gene Kranz – flight director of the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in July 1969 – told lawmakers that when people ask whether the U.S. should go back to the moon, the answer should be resolute.
“Yes. We have an administration willing to spend the money, we have leadership in place,” Kranz said.
But there’s a caveat. If the administration, the agency, and its scientists are “philosophically divided” on the goal, he said, they will forever lack focus and the ability to prioritize – two traits that propelled the discoveries of the Space Age.
“There can be general support for exploring space and a desire to see it continue, but without unity, the programs will be grounded. We have to establish a plan and stick with it. The lunar gateway was discussed before Apollo. There’s good work out there, but really, this administration should take a look at plans already written, see what parts are still viable,” Kranz said.
Homer Hickam – author of “Rocket Boys,” a book that inspired the 1999 film “October Sky” – told lawmakers he wanted to see the government successfully make an argument to the American people that returning to the moon will unleash the next generation of innovators, explorers and inventors.
“We should utilize its mineral wealth. It may cost the people money to place an anchor there but that won’t be the case forever,” Hickam said.
There are “riches” on the moon, he added, like tritium, titanium and helium-3, a nonradioactive isotope that some scientists say could provide an infinite, alternate, nuclear-like energy source.
“A base on the moon will make this country stronger and safer. I don’t care who the next astronaut on the moon is frankly, but rather, who is the next construction worker or plumber? Who is the next American blue collar worker on the moon? When that happens, we will know we are finally a space-faring nation,” Hickam said.