While he has initiated the social media campaign, #Apollo45, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is also using the occasion to campaign for an expansion of American space exploration. According to a Tuesday story in the Washington Post, Aldrin has expressed the wish that President Obama make some sort of announcement along those lines this July 20. The idea has a certain aspect of déjà vu.
Aldrin believes that the American civil space program is adrift and that some new space exploration, he prefers to Mars, would be just the thing to set it back on course. There is only one problem, however. President Obama has already made the big space exploration announcement. Aldrin knows this because he was there.
President Obama flew to the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, with Aldrin accompanying as a photo op prop, and made the announcement that America would no longer be headed back to the moon, as was the plan under his predecessor George W. Bush. Instead American astronauts would visit an Earth approaching asteroid and then, decades hence, would land on Mars. Obama even invoked Aldrin’s name when sneering at the idea of returning to the moon.
“Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We've been there before. Buzz has been there.”
Subsequently, as Aldrin stated, NASA went adrift, plagued by a lack of funding, leadership and direction. The asteroid expedition was downsized to a scheme that would involve snagging a small rock with a robotic probe, moving it into lunar orbit, and then visiting it with astronauts. The idea has been criticized in many quarters, including a recent National Research Council report that strongly suggested that the moon and an asteroid “in its native orbit” lays in the critical path to Mars.
Aldrin is somewhat out of step with his fellow Apollo astronauts as to what the next destination in space should. The late Neil Armstrong advocated a return to the moon, as have Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, and Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. Aldrin believes that the moon would be a mistake and that only going directly to Mars would have the sufficient excitement and challenge to capture the interest of the American people.
As for the White House, it is mum on what if anything President Obama intends to do on July 20. It is too soon to release that schedule. However the president’s history suggests that he is not inclined to revisit policy initiatives once they have been made.