Enough with the Moon ? now let’s fly to Mars

Author: By David Usborne, US Editor

Still, lunar nostalgia has its place, especially this week. Buzz Aldrin, who
followed Armstrong on to the Moon’s surface on 20 July 1968 and who was
beside him again at the National Air and Space Museum on Sunday, recalled
that their mission had been “a symbol of what a great nation and a
great people can do if we work hard and work together”.

Armstrong said that the space race that had been played out during the height
of the Cold War and which culminated in his walking on the Moon was “the
ultimate peaceful competition: USA versus USSR. It did allow both sides to
take the high road with the objectives of science and learning and
exploration”.

But Armstrong, Aldrin and the other still surviving Apollo alumni have had
something more urgent to say these past few days: don’t let the spirit of
Apollo die. There are more bold steps to be taken and more frontiers to be
broken.

It is a message that was repeated at an anniversary press conference in
Washington yesterday and carried a few hours later by Aldrin, Armstrong and
the third Apollo 11 crew member, Michael Collins, into the White House, to
the man who might have the power to reinvigorate (and sufficiently fund)
Nasa: Barack Obama.

These pioneers of space exploration are anxious that the new President of the
United States borrow something of the nothing-is-impossible bravado that
President John F Kennedy showed when he first vowed in 1961 to send a man to
the Moon.

They want him to set just such a goal again, but this time with a new
destination: the Red Planet.

“Sometimes I think I flew to the wrong place. Mars was always my
favourite as a kid and it still is today,” Collins said. “I’d like
to see Mars become the focus, just as John F Kennedy focused on the Moon.”

Aldrin told an audience of nearly 500 at the museum on Sunday night: “The
best way to honour and remember all those who were part of the Apollo
programme is to follow in our footsteps; to boldly go again on a new mission
of exploration.”

He repeated his call for missions to Mars yesterday.

“There may be life on Mars and if there is, it’s damn sure we ought to go
there and look at it,” Aldrin, 79, told reporters. “When we get
there, if we don’t find any life on Mars, from that point on there will be
life on Mars because we’ll bring it there, whether it’s germs and leftover
urine bags, whatever it is.”

Eugene Cernan, a member of the Apollo 17 mission and the last man on the Moon,
concurred. He moreover displayed disappointment that a Mars visit had not
already happened. Recalling that the Apollo programme was ended in the
1970s, he said: “I really believed we’d be back on the Moon by the end
of that decade and on our way to Mars by the turn of the century. My glass
has been half empty for three decades at least.

“We need to go back to the Moon,” Cernan said, accompanied at a news
conference by half a dozen other Apollo astronauts. “We need to learn a
bit more about what we think we know already, we need to establish bases,
put new telescopes on the Moon, get prepared to go to Mars. Because the
ultimate goal is to go to Mars.”

Returning to the Moon is indeed on the Nasa calendar, at least in theory.
While the current Space Shuttle fleet faces final retirement next year, the
intention for now is to develop the new Constellation space programme that
is meant to establish a lunar base by 2020 as a stepping stone to voyages
beyond, including to Mars.

That, at least, was the course that the Bush administration set. Since Mr
Obama came to office, however, a new review has been set in train for Nasa.

Though Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins were surely welcomed as national heroes
into the Oval Office yesterday, they will have met a President who is under
extraordinary pressure to find ways not to spend more federal dollars.
Universal healthcare coverage interests Mr Obama more than the universe.

At least Nasa on this anniversary was able to say that it had men in space.
Astronauts David Wolf and Thomas Marshburn were due to conduct a space walk
to attach tools to the International Space Station.

Less glorious, however, was the Shuttle crew’s other task for the day: fixing
a blocked toilet.

Where are they now? The Apollo astronauts

Buzz Aldrin, 79 Apollo 11: An author and lecturer, he also heads the
ShareSpace Foundation to promote possibilities for private space exploration
? including space tourism with eventual hotel accommodation on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong, 78 Apollo 11: Famous for his reluctance to embrace his
hero image, he has nonetheless made occasional public appearances. After
leaving Nasa he taught engineering and helped in the Challenger
disaster inquiry.

James Lovell, 81 Apollo 13: A highlight of post-Nasa life may have been
consulting on Apollo 13, the film that had him played by Tom Hanks.
He opened a restaurant in Illinois, Lovell’s Steakhouse, and worked in
telecommunications.

Alan Bean, 77 Apollo 12: 40 years after walking on the Moon, he is
still reliving the moment ? on canvas. Bean is a painter who has been
exhibited in Washington and whose works try to capture the astronauts’
experience.

Frank Borman, 81. Apollo 8: Staying aloft, he left Nasa to become
chairman of the now defunct Eastern Airlines. He was a goodwill ambassador
to Europe and Asia for President Nixon. Now rebuilds and flies antique
aircraft.

Michael Collins, 78. Apollo 11: He became director of the Smithsonian
National Air and Space Museum which hosted a reunion between him, Buzz
Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on Sunday. Also wrote a book about the mission, Liftoff.

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