Earlier this year, the Trump administration said America would send a manned mission to the Moon by 2024, a feat that was first achieved 50 years ago Sarurday. But as the date gets closer and political infighting continues to abound, the question begs to be asked — what do the astronauts think?
Some Apollo-era astronauts, like Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, think it’s a good idea, but only if the funding comes through.
“Landing on the Moon in the next decade is a doable project,” Duke, who was also the capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for Apollo 11, told Fox News. “It depends on money. I think a couple billion [dollars per year] increase would do it, but I’m not sure. Either way, Congress has to appropriate the money.”
This view of Earth rising over the moon’s horizon was taken from the Apollo spacecraft. The lunar terrain pictured is in the area of Smyth’s Sea on the nearside. Coordinates of the center of the terrain are 85 degrees east longitude and 3 degrees north latitude. (Credit: NASA)
“Landing on the Moon in the next decade is a doable project. It depends on money. I think a couple billion [dollars per year] increase would do it, but I’m not sure. Either way, Congress has to appropriate the money.”
— Charlie Duke, Apollo 16 astronaut and 10th man to walk on the Moon.
Duke, the 10th person to walk on the Moon, added that if Congress doesn’t step up to the plate, private companies could fill the void, but it’s more than just about returning to the Moon — it’s about going beyond.
“I see us going beyond the initial landing and building a station on the Moon,” Duke continued. “It’s a great place for scientific exploration. Look at the science we’ve done in Antarctica. We live and survive down there. There are different problems on the Moon, but those are ones we can handle. We can build the confidence and the science that will eventually take us to Mars, which will happen sooner or later.”
Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise shared Duke’s sentiment about funding being the key issue to ensure that American boots return to the Moon. “If the proper funds are not there to support a proper plan you’re not going to go anywhere,” he told Fox News. “That’s what’s key, is how well it’s supported beyond the mandates.”
NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is $21.5 billion and the space agency, under Administrator Jim Bridenstine, is working with the Trump administration on a budget request that would make a return to the Moon possible, although no official figures have been publicly discussed. This comes as Bridenstine and NASA have been grilled by Congress to know why their plan to return to the Moon by 2024 is not ready yet.
William Gerstenmaier, the head of human spaceflight programs and a NASA mainstay since 1977, was recently replaced. Speaking with Fox News, Bridenstine tried to dissuade the notion that politics played a role in Gerstenmaier’s demotion.
“I don’t think there’s anything that he was not doing,” Bridenstine said. “I just think it’s time for new leadership.”
Then there are others, like Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who believe we should bypass the Moon and go straight to Mars.
“The current plan has been well thought out, but I disagree with it, we should shoot directly for Mars,” he said in an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto. “Twenty-some years ago, I even wrote a book, a whole boring book, on a mission to Mars and I have always been a believer in Mars.”
“I doubt the Trump statement is possible. I’m not sure he’s considered going to the Moon or Mars in any great detail.”
— Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins
In a separate interview with Fox News earlier this month, the 88-year-old Collins said that the timeline for returning to the Moon by 2024 was not feasible.
Michael Collins at Apollo 11 Command Module, practicing docking hatch removal from CM simulator at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, June 28, 1969. Image courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
“I doubt the Trump statement is possible,” Collins noted. “I’m not sure he’s considered going to the Moon or Mars in any great detail.”
Who gets to the Moon first?
There has been ample scrutiny placed upon the space agency, including an odd tweet by President Trump last month when he said NASA “should [not] be talking about going to the Moon,” but should focus on “much bigger things,” including Mars.
In May, Trump tweeted that under his administration NASA would return to the Moon and ultimately, Mars, in an effort to “return to space in a big way!”
Vice President Mike Pence warned that if NASA can’t put astronauts on the moon by 2024, “we need to change the organization, not the mission.” He cautioned that the space agency needed to transform into a more efficient organization, or else it would be replaced by private industry.
Collins is hopeful the renewed interest in space is not like previous efforts, citing involvement from two of Silicon Valley’s biggest chieftains – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk – who are also at the helm of space exploration companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively.
Joking about how he would like a “big chunk of Musk and Bezos money,” Collins said he has been “impressed” by Bezos, having met the Amazon leader several times. While Collins has yet to meet Musk, he did note both are “a positive force on the national scene” and believes the two of them, along with the federal government, are a force for good for space exploration.
“I’ve changed my mind on what [Jeff] Bezos and [Elon] Musk are doing,” Duke, who was initially wary of the two billionaires, told Fox News. “Technically, they’re very good and they’ve demonstrated really amazing capabilities. They’re small enough to make quick decisions and they’re willing to take risk. More power to them.”
Whether it’s private industry, NASA or a combo of both, the interest in returning (and staying) to space is something that gives the Apollo-era astronauts a sense of joy.
“I say to those two billionaires: Jump in and the three of you [including the American taxpayer] can do great things together,” Collins said. “I think that’s wonderful.”