40 years after moon landing, NASA seeks new mission

The image materialized at 10:56:20 p.m. from an inhospitable place and a distance of 250,801 miles. It was grainy. It was irresistible. It marked the first stride of a wondrous journey that ultimately led nowhere.

It has been exactly 40 years since astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed down a ladder and stirred the powdery surface of the moon. Four days earlier, he had awakened in Florida.

"That's one small step for man," he said, "one giant leap for mankind."

During the next three years, 11 other astronauts, all American, walked on the moon. And that was that. Humans never again touched a distant celestial body.

Today, there's no lack of ambition and goal-setting at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is mapping long-range plans for a lunar base and eventually a human mission to Mars.

But funding falls far short of what will be needed, Congressional support is anemic, and many ask if Americans -- pummeled by economic woe, burdened by profound security threats, preoccupied with their iPods and their BlackBerrys -- are still capable of being rallied to a cause that once galvanized the nation.

Inspired by the vision and words of President John F. Kennedy, the American space program catapulted from serial launch pad failures to a successful lunar landing in only eight years. The Apollo moon project cost $25 billion (the equivalent of at least $140 billion now), employed 390,000 Americans and provided the nation with a com-mon goal during a difficult time.

When a machine built in the United States landed on the moon carrying Arm-strong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, 500 million people back on Earth monitored the event, 35,000 base-ball fans at Yankee Stadium stood and sang America the Beautiful, and CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, a consummate professional nearly impossible to rattle, could muster only this: "Man on the moon. Oh, jeez. Oh, boy. Whew. Boy. Oh, boy."


But that was then, and this is now.

Even Collins, Apollo 11's command module pilot, bemoans what he calls ‘‘NASA's creeping pace'' and other shortcomings that will complicate a return to the moon and any human missions that press deeper into space.

"We definitely have a national problem in that kids seem to be going after money rather than what they consider ‘nerdy' careers," Collins said in remarks released for the 40th anniversary of his mission. "Other countries are out-stripping us in the quality and quantity of math and science grads, and this can only hurt in the long run."

Thus, while the space agency basks in the distant glow of an event that propelled the United States to the pinnacle of an increasingly techno-logical world, it also must fret about its own future.


As the Apollo 11 crew members gather in Washington this week, a panel formed by President Barack Obama to review NASA's spaceflight plans will be working nearby on a report due in August.

The nation's space shuttles, the aging aerospace tractor-trailers based on 1970s-era technology and incapable of reaching the moon, are scheduled to be permanently grounded by the end of the next year.

As a result, the panel's mandate is "everything from the fly-out of the shuttle to the International Space Station to new launch capabilities to potential landings possibly on the moon, possibly on Mars, possibly on asteroids or moons of Mars," said committee Chairman Norman Augustine.

This re-evaluation of NASA's future highlights chronic funding and political issues that have dogged the space agency since the Apollo project.

The first sign of NASA's declining political relevance came almost immediately after Apollo 11, when President Richard Nixon moved to cut funding for the space program, canceling two moon missions. Since then, the space pro-gram's share of the federal budget declined from 4 percent to 0.6 percent.


Even so, NASA has attempted to live up to its heritage by continuing to propose ambitious missions, said John Logsdon, the Charles A. Lindbergh chair of aerospace history at the National Air and Space Museum.

Five years ago, it prepared a vision to return to the moon by 2020 and then send humans to Mars. Preliminary design, engineering and mission-planning work is under way.

Just last week, NASA released new photos of several Apollo landing sites -- pictures snapped by a remote device launched last month from Cape Canaveral.

"It was great to see the hardware on the surface, waiting for humans to return," Mark Robinson, a project manager, said Friday. "You can see markings where the astronauts walked."


Still, many challenges remain.

As the Houston-based manager of the space-shuttle program, John Shannon has had a front-row seat, watching pro-gram managers struggle to develop the next generation of spacecraft with less up-front funding than promised.

"They have a good plan," Shannon said. "Their architecture is good. People say, ‘Ah, they're behind schedule,' or ‘They have these technical difficulties.' They just don't have money.

"We see that on the shuttle side very clearly because we're trying to hand over work force, industrial base, rocket testing, the Vertical Assembly Building [at the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida], and they just don't have the money to pick those things up," Shannon said. "So now we're trying to scramble to try and keep things mothballed and it's just a mess."


One realm in which NASA has made significant strides since Apollo is in international relations, according to George Abbey, an assistant to the Apollo program manager and director of the Johnson Space Center from 1996 to 2001.

"We've moved in a direction that's more based on international cooperation, and I think that's taken us in the right direction," Abbey said. ‘‘We started off in Apollo in a competitive program with the Russians. If you look at where we are today, we have pro-grams with the International Space Station, which we're doing with 15 nations."

Abbey said the new pro-gram's rocket development is solely an American effort. To achieve greater goals, he said, NASA must enlist the international coalition that is building the space station.

"Dollars are always going to be a challenge, and if you can utilize their capabilities and complement each other, you can achieve a lot more," he said.


Aldrin and Collins, among others, argue that NASA should aim higher -- for Mars rather than the moon. Aldrin noted that Russia is planning to launch a soil-sample return mission to the Mars moon Phobos, a potential staging area for human landings on Mars.

"I don't think the American people know that Russia and other nations are actively pursuing things that we've set aside, because we're concentrating on doing what we did 40 years ago," Aldrin said. ‘‘I'm not sure that inviting them to compete, rather than cooperate, with us is productive for anyone."

Contributing to this report were Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle and former Miami Herald Senior Writer Martin Merzer, who covered the nation's space program from 1986 to 2008.