Will SLS Be Named After Gene Cernan?

Will SLS Be Named After Gene Cernan?

Two House members introduced a resolution yesterday to name the first launch of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) “Cernan 1” after Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon.  Cernan testified to Congress several times in recent years in favor of a strong human spaceflight program and returning humans to the Moon.  Cernan died last month.  His companion on that Apollo 17 mission was Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who later became a U.S. Senator.  Schmitt will testify to a House committee this morning (Thursday) about NASA’s past, present, and future.

Beginning in 2010, after President Obama cancelled the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon, Cernan spoke and wrote in opposition to that decision, often in tandem with Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.  Constellation’s cancellation meant the end of the new rocket NASA was building at the time, called Ares.   Obama’s move was harshly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.  After a bitter debate between Congress and the White House, Congress passed and Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, that directed NASA to build a new large rocket, SLS, and a “multi-purpose crew vehicle” (Orion) to continue human exploration of space.  

Those programs are currently underway.  Boeing and Lockheed Martin are the prime contractors for SLS and Orion respectively.  Representatives of those and other companies working on the program have been meeting in Washington this week at a “supplier’s conference.”  

At an associated event last evening. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama) announced that he and other members of the House had just introduced a resolution to name the first SLS launch “Cernan 1.” The co-sponsor of the resolution is Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA.  Culberson said in a press release that SLS is “an opportunity to forge forward with Captain Cernan’s vision to push the boundaries of human exploration” and the resolution will ensure that Cernan’s “role in making America’s space program the best in the world is never forgotten.”

Gene Cernan speaks at memorial service for Neil Armstrong, 2012.   Photo credit: NASA

Cernan died on January 16, 2017.  He was 82.   Armstrong also has passed away.  He died in 2012, also at 82.  NASA renamed its Dryden Flight Research Center in California in his honor.  Twelve NASA astronauts walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972:   Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11, 1969), Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo 12, 1969), Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell (Apollo 14, 1971), David Scott and Jim Irwin (Apollo 15, 1971), John Young  and Charlie Duke (Apollo 16, 1972), and Cernan and Schmitt (Apollo 17, 1972).  Six are still living (Aldrin, Scott, Bean, Young, Duke, and Schmitt).

Aderholt and Culberson were two of many members of Congress who spoke at the supplier’s conference event last night, all strongly supporting SLS and Orion.  Former astronauts Bob Crippen and Tom Stafford also addressed the gathering.  Crippen flew on four space shuttle missions, including the very first one in 1981.  He stressed the need for program stability for SLS/Orion to succeed.  Stafford also is a veteran of four space missions — two in the Gemini program and two Apollo missions.  Cernan was Stafford’s crewmate on two of those flights, including Apollo 10, which was a test flight that orbited the Moon in 1969 in advance of the Apollo 11 landing.  Stafford regaled the crowd with stories about his spaceflights with Cernan and used the opportunity to criticize the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel Constellation.  He praised the SLS program and vowed that he would be on hand for its flight flight.  Stafford will testify at this morning’s House committee hearing along with Schmitt.

Last night’s event was a combination of honoring Cernan and demonstrating support for SLS and Orion.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing at 10:00 am ET this morning is expected to provide another opportunity to address the future of the U.S. civil space program, both human and robotic.   Joining Schmitt and Stafford at the witness table will be Ellen Stofan, who recently stepped down as NASA’s Chief Scientist, and former NASA and industry executive Tom Young.  The committee typically webcasts its hearings on its website.

Several members of the committee were among the speakers last night, including Rep. Ami Bera (D-California), the new ranking member of the Space Subcommittee. He said it is time to get back to “dreaming big.”  Space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) praised yesterday’s announcement by NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot that NASA will study the feasibility of putting a crew on the first SLS mission.  Babin called the idea exciting.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) also spoke.  He said SLS and Orion will provide “comprehensive national power” to ensure American preeminence in space, which he considers especially important in light of China’s space program advances.  Bridenstine is often mentioned as one of the candidates to serve as the new NASA Administrator although the White House has not made any announcements about NASA leadership positions.  Lightfoot is Acting Administrator and Greg Autry is the White House liaison to NASA.  Both were at the event, but only Autry spoke.  He congratulated the SLS/Orion contractors, saying they should give themselves a round of applause for all their good work.  Then he noted that he will attend the SpaceX CRS-10 launch on Saturday and asked for a round of applause for SpaceX, too. The group complied.

Correction:  An earlier version of this story listed Jim Irwin as among the living Apollo moonwalkers and omitted Alan Bean.  We regret the error.


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