Moon man - US space plan embarrassing
Washington - Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, told lawmakers on Thursday that the end of the space shuttle era has left the American human space flight programme in an "embarrassing" state.
"We will have no American access to, and return from, low Earth orbit and the International Space Station for an unpredictable length of time in the future," Armstrong told the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
"For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable."
Armstrong was part of a four-member panel of space experts who told lawmakers that Nasa needs a stronger vision for the future and should focus on returning humans to the Moon and to the International Space Station.
"A lead, however earnestly and expensively won, once lost, is nearly impossible to regain," said the US astronaut, now 81, who was commander of Apollo 11 and walked on the Moon in 1969.
President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation programme that would have returned humans to the Moon and called on Nasa to instead focus on new, deep-space capabilities to carry people to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030.
The retirement in July of the three-decade-old space shuttle programme brought an end to the US capability to send humans to space until private industry can come up with a new commercial space capsule to the ISS, maybe by 2015.
In the meantime, Russia's Soyuz capsules are the only taxis for the world's astronauts heading to low-Earth orbit, and each ticket to the ISS costs global space agencies between $50 and $60m each.
Crank up the motors
"Get the shuttle out of the garage down there at Kennedy (Space Centre), crank up the motors and put it back in service," said Eugene Cernan, who commanded the Apollo 17 flight and was the last man to walk on the Moon in 1972.
"You want a launch vehicle today that will service the ISS? We've got it sitting down there. So before we put it in a museum, let's make use of it. It's in the prime of its life, how could we just put it away?"
Cernan hailed the vision of John F Kennedy, "a bold and courageous president who started us on a journey to the stars," and said thousands of Americans have been inspired by the space race with the Soviet Union.
"Today, we are on a path of decay. We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishment as the leader in human space exploration," Cernan said.
"As unimaginable as it seems, we have now come full circle and ceded our leadership role in space back to the same country - albeit by a different name - that spurred our challenge five decades ago."
He said Constellation has been replaced by a "mission to nowhere" and called on Nasa to make plans to return to the Moon.