It’s hard to believe that on July 20, 2014, we'll be celebrating the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11, man’s first landing on the moon. It’s also hard to believe that no one can really say where the U.S. manned space exploration program is heading and how we’re going to get there. People come up to me and say, “It’s too bad the space program got canceled.” This is not the case, and yet that is what most of the public thinks has happened. Yes, we hear from NASA that the destination is Mars — and yet there is no detailed plan on how to get there. No one can seem to agree on a clear path. The nation is understandably focused on many other pressing challenges at the moment. However, if we don’t make some important decisions about the future of our space program very soon, I’m afraid the program will be lost to the ages.
There are eight U.S. astronauts left out of the 12 who walked on the moon. All of us are in the eighth decade of our lives. Each of us can attest to the importance of continuing human exploration of space and the tremendous impact it has had on so many facets of our society. The technical innovations, scientific achievements, medical breakthroughs, environmental enhancements, national defense improvements and educational impacts have been immeasurable. Our nation simply cannot afford to lose a program that has contributed so much for so long. Our leaders have some important decisions to make and they need to make them now. The moon must not be the last stop in America’s quest for knowledge of other planets and of other places.
Here’s what we as a nation must decide:
- Does the United States wish to continue leading human exploration of space or leave it to Russia, China, India or some other nation to take over? To me, the answer is obvious.
- Does it not make good sense for the U.S. to take the high ground by establishing cooperative U.S.-China relations in space? We did it with the Soviet Union through the Apollo-Soyuz program back in July 1975, and I believe it is even more important to do it with the PRC in 2014. Cooperation, not confrontation, should be the hallmark of our dealings with the Chinese beyond Earth.
- Does it make sense for the U.S. to expend hundreds of billions of dollars to mount a new Apollo-style program to return to the moon? Or have we blazed that trail? Shouldn’t we help other nations achieve this goal with their own resources but with our help? Rather than doing again something we did 45 years ago, shouldn’t the U.S. be developing a path toward Mars?
- And shouldn’t the U.S. develop the technological capabilities needed to land humans on Mars by first traveling to a nearby asteroid for research and development purposes? A hybrid human-robot mission to investigate an asteroid affords a realistic opportunity to demonstrate new technological capabilities for future deep-space travel and to test spacecraft for long-duration spaceflight. This is imperative, as we’ve never done manned missions beyond the moon.
- And speaking of Mars, are we prepared as a nation to take the necessary steps to explore Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a manned settlement on that planet? To me, the answer should be a resounding “yes.”
It’s unlikely that the remaining Apollo astronauts, including yours truly, will be around to witness the conclusion of the next exciting chapter in our nation’s space program. However, we would like to be here when our President and Congress make these critical decisions. If our leaders make the right decisions — and they must — we’re confident the new manned space program will meet or exceed the tremendous success of the Apollo program so many years ago. But let’s make these decisions now.
Dr. Buzz Aldrin served as lunar module pilot for Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission. He is the author of eight books, including his New York Times best-selling autobiography Magnificent Desolation. His newest book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, was published in 2013. As one of the leading space exploration advocates, Buzz continues to chart a course for future space travel.