Nix NASA Completely, Apollo Astronaut Says
2011-05-27 0:00

By Natalie Wolchover | Space.com

NASA should be scrapped in favor of a new agency, one with the sole objective of furthering Americaís exploration of deep space. So says Harrison Schmitt, the last man to set foot on the moon, in a proposal published online today (May 25).

Schmitt, a member of Apollo 17 in 1972 and later a one-term U.S. senator, proposed that the new space agency be called the National Space Exploration Administration.


Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during an Apollo 17 moonwalk in December 1973.
CREDIT: NASA

Fifty years after John F. Kennedyís famous speech that set America on its glorious path to the moon, Schmitt, 75, said NASA has lost its focus. The Apollo program helped win the Cold War, strengthened national unity and set up the United States to take control of lunar resources, but NASA has withered under later presidencies, including Barack Obamaís, Schmitt said.

"I donít blame NASA as much as I blame various administrations for not recognizing the geopolitical importance of space," he told SPACE.com. [Video: President Kennedyís Moonshot Moment]

Schmittís call for overhauling the space program is partly a response to Obamaís 2012 budget, which critics say increased the funding for space technology research at NASA but did not provide adequate funding for deep-space exploration.

Other Apollo astronauts have lamented the lack of focus on exploration.

In a May 24 op-ed in USA Today, Apollo mission commanders Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan wrote, "After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining Americaís leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent."

Apollo 17 crewmates Cernan and Schmitt were the worldís last moonwalkers.

If formed in 2013, the proposed NSEA could send Americans back to the moon by 2020, Schmitt says, and establish lunar settlements and Mars exploration and settlements in the decades after that. It also would develop the ability to deflect Earth-bound asteroids. All of NASAís current scientific endeavors would be within the purview of the National Science Foundation and other government-funded science organizations.

The significance of space

Schmitt believes refocusing on space exploration is crucial for the United States to maintain its status as a superpower.

"This is not just a competition between nations; itís a competition between freedom and tyranny," Schmitt said. "The United States is the only power on Earth today that has in its DNA a protection of liberty, and if we decide to back off from space or any other major human endeavor, then we put that liberty in jeopardy.

"The Obama administration has basically said that they wonít pursue an exceptional space program for the United States and that theyíre just as happy to have China move forward into deep space, and be dependent on Russia for transport to the International Space Station."

Schmitt, who was elected to the Senate in 1976 as a Republican from New Mexico, says Chinaís domination of deep space and Russiaís domination of near-Earth space would lower Americaís international standing of the U.S. in the same way the Soviet Union winning the space race would have changed the outcome of the Cold War.

On top of the perceptions and politics, Schmitt argues that deep-space exploration is necessary for controlling space resources ? in particular, a fusion fuel called helium-3 that comes from the sun and is preserved in lunar soils. "Under certain financial constraints, helium-3 can be economically viable as a fuel for fusion power reactors here on Earth, and to have that dominated by another power such as China I think would be very dangerous for us. Thatís just another aspect of the geopolitical significance of exploration," Schmitt said.

Read the full article at: space.com




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