Apollo 50 Revs Into High Gear as NASA, White House and Congress Talk Moon Then Mars

Apollo 50 Revs Into High Gear as NASA, White House and Congress Talk Moon Then Mars

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission kicked into high gear today.  It was exactly 50 years ago, at 9:32 am EDT, that Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins lifted off atop a Saturn V rocket from Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, FL. Four days later, on July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another world.  The three men returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. While heralding these historic events, NASA, the White House and Congress are looking to the future and getting astronauts on the lunar surface again and eventually to Mars.

The day started at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC with Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit put back on display for the first time in 13 years.  Armstrong passed away in 2012, but his son, Rick, was there along with Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and NASM Director Ellen Stofan.   C-SPAN recorded the event.

L-R: Rick Armstrong, Vice President Mike Pence, NASM Director Ellen Stofan, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: C-SPAN.

Recently refurbished thanks to contributions collected through the Reboot the Suit Kickstarter campaign, Armstrong’s spacesuit has now been conserved and placed in a special display case to preserve it for posterity. Even after 50 years, the rubber in the suit is “off-gassing unwanted vapors.”  The display case is ventilated to pull the offending effluents away from the suit and controls temperature, lighting and relative humidity. The museum also used the opportunity to scan the spacesuit and create a 3-D print-ready model that can be downloaded by anyone.

In remarks today at the NASM and during a media telecon yesterday, Bridenstine again laid out the plan for getting “the next man and the first woman” on the Moon by 2024 as directed by Pence on March 26 — the Artemis program.  Following President Trump’s June 7 tweet chiding NASA for talking about the Moon instead of “bigger things” like Mars, however, Bridenstine spends more time connecting those dots.  Bridenstine said during the telecon that he spoke to Trump about three weeks ago and while Trump understands the Moon must come first, Mars is a “generational achievement” and that is his goal.  Bridenstine even said yesterday “I am not willing to rule out 2033 at all” as the year  humans reach Mars.  It is a long sought goal of Mars advocates, but an independent review by IDA’s Science and Technology Policy Institute recently concluded 2033 is “infeasible.” Bridenstine pushed back on that during the telecon insisting that “not everyone agrees with some of the assumptions” in that study, like how long the crew would have to remain on Mars. “I’m not saying 2033 is on the agenda,” but now that the path to the Moon is being accelerated, NASA is assessing options for speeding up trips to Mars.

For his part, Pence made only  a passing reference to the future of human exploration this morning, focusing instead on Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 anniversary.  He did repeat, though, that it is “now the policy of America to return to the Moon within the next five years and from there onto Mars.”

Congress is also looking at the past and the future with hearings and legislation.

The legislation is to protect heritage sites on the Moon like the Apollo 11 landing site.  Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act (S. 1694), which cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee last week.  Today, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) introduced a companion bill (H.R. 3766).  House and Senate floor schedules are always in flux, but it is possible that a final bill could pass Congress this week and be signed into law in time for Saturday’s anniversary of the landing.  The Moon is getting to be a busy place, with other countries and companies planning robotic missions to the surface.  The legislation would apply only to entities needing U.S. licenses to send spacecraft to the Moon, but would require them to agree to abide by NASA recommendations on how to protect those sites.  It includes a Sense of Congress statement that the President initiate “a diplomatic initiative to negotiate an international agreement” to encourage everyone to adhere to those recommendations.

As for hearings, this morning, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held one on the “Legacy of Apollo.”  Johnson cited the “intangible impacts” of “inspiring a generation to seek careers in STEM fields” and proof that “this nation is capable of great accomplishments when we share a common goal and a willingness to commit the resources needed to achieve it.”  Lucas noted many benefits that emerged from the Apollo program and cheered the plans to return to the Moon by 2024.  “To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, the world bore witness to man’s resolve in 1969. A man’s dream and a nation’s pledge were fulfilled.  The lunar age had begun. It’s time to renew that legacy and rekindle that resolve.”

The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on “Moon to Mars: NASA’s Plans for Deep Space Exploration.”  Bridenstine is the sole witness.

Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins (L) and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana (R) at KSC Launch Complex 39-A talking about the liftoff of Apollo 11 exactly 50 years earlier. July 16, 2019. Credit: NASA

Excitement about human space exploration is running pretty high right now among the House and Senate members who oversee NASA, albeit a small percentage of Congress.  Whether their enthusiasm will be enough to convince their colleagues to appropriate the money NASA needs to execute Artemis and plan in earnest for missions to Mars remains to be seen.  At the moment, they cannot even agree on raising the budget caps that will automatically go into effect on October 1 or raising the debt limit.

Meanwhile, the nation can enjoy the memories of the past with a multitude of events between now and July 24.  For example,  Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins returned to LC-39A  this morning to reminisce about what it was like riding the Saturn V 50 years ago. (Aldrin was supposed to be there, but was not.)  Looking to the future, Collins is one of those who firmly advocates for going directly to Mars without returning to the Moon — what he calls the JFK Mars Express.  NASA TV will replay the video of the event at 9:00 pm ET tonight.

SpacePolicyOnline.com has a list of selected events and links to more complete lists from NASM and NASA for their own activities over the next several days.

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