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Astronauts Criticize NASA Moon Program Cuts Before Congress

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Astronaut Neil Armstrong and made a rare public appearance to testify before Congress about the future space exploration. Kwame Holman reports on the divisions about the future of space exploration and plans to scrap NASA's Constellation program.

GWEN IFILL: Next: The reclusive astronaut Neil Armstrong came to Capitol Hill today to make a rare public pitch about his passion for space exploration.

Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman tells the story.

NEIL ARMSTRONG, NASA astronaut: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those words on July 20, 1969, instantly made American astronaut Neil Armstrong an international hero to the 500 million who watched on TV, and millions more who listened on radio when he became the first person to step on the surface of the moon.

After taking those historic steps, Armstrong worked briefly at NASA, taught about space, and worked in the computer industry, but rarely made public appearances. He refused most media requests, choosing instead a quiet life in an Ohio farming town.

Armstrong has gone public to promote spaceflight and served on two NASA panels to review the accident that nearly destroyed Apollo 13 in 1970, and to investigate the explosion of the Challenger shuttle in 1986.

Armstrong declares that space is the frontier, but mostly stayed out of debates over NASA policy in the last four decades, until this year. When President Obama announced he was ending the Constellation program, aimed at returning astronauts to the moon, in favor of a concentration on basic space science, Armstrong and fellow former astronauts Eugene Cernan and Jim Lovell released a statement calling the decision devastating.

Mr. Obama’s plan would boost NASA’s budget by $6 billion over five years, focusing on spurring the private space transportation industry, while NASA looks to develop rockets to take crews to asteroids, the moon and eventually Mars.

At a Senate hearing today, Armstrong said the president should have stayed the course.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: I believe that, so far, our national investment in space and our sharing of that knowledge, gained with the rest of the world, has been made wisely and has served us very well.

KWAME HOLMAN: But John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology, said the administration’s goal is to find new ways to explore space.

JOHN HOLDREN, director, Office of Science and Technology Policy: We couldn’t have it both ways. We couldn’t continue to invest in the old program at the levels that it was requiring and invest in these other possibilities.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Armstrong said President Obama’s plan jeopardizes America’s place as a space pioneer.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: America is respected for its contributions it has made in learning to sail on this new ocean. If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that would be in our best interests.

KWAME HOLMAN: Going forward, Neil Armstrong wants Congress to override NASA and fund more immediate human missions to space.