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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Can We Return Man to the Moon?

Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan holds the American flag as the earth hangs suspended in the background.

Once you've used the moon as your trampoline, you spend the rest of your life waiting for a second turn on the ride. It's no surprise, then, that Gene Cernan and Alan Bean, two Apollo-era astronauts who have bounded on the lunar surface, are thrilled with NASA's plans to return Americans the moon. Thrilled, but not entirely convinced it will ever happen. "To be honest with you," says Cernan, the last man to leave the moon in December 1972, "I'll be surprised if this happens [by] 2020."

Why the doubt? Motivation and money, say Bean and Cernan. Without the pressure of imminent international challenge, the astronauts say, the Constellation program — NASA's next manned mission to the moon in 2020 — will lag. "We need some kind of stimulus, a commercial or international challenge to our standing in the free world," says Cernan, 74. "And it isn't out there." That's a potentially make-or-break difference from the ambitious, Cold War–fueled days of Apollo. It's unlikely, then, that any future President will make manned lunar exploration a real priority. Which means inadequate funding for NASA and a tough bind for the agency's administrator, Michael Griffin. "If the President says you're going to the moon with this amount of money," says Bean, now 76 and an artist in Houston, "you'd better say yes, because if you don't you aren't going to have a job anymore." In effect, he says, the space agency must go through the motions of building hardware until the money runs out, knowing it won't be enough to make it to the moon.

"I see the same glint in [NASA's] eyes, the same good things that we had going for us," says Bean, who piloted Apollo 12's lunar module, "except I don't see the money that it's going to take to do the job."

Another surprising obstacle to returning man to the moon: NASA's space shuttle, a technological marvel that did little more than turn us back into Earth-orbit-bound homebodies. "We went all the way to the moon, then they closed the garage door," says Cernan. That near-sighted mindset may have carried over to Constellation, where engineers are focusing as much on developing two rockets — the Ares V cargo rocket (think Apollo's Saturn V on steroids) and the slender Ares 1 crew launcher — as on the vehicles and habitats needed for the lunar surface. NASA says Ares adapts technologies from the Space Shuttle and Saturn programs, but the astronauts wonder why we're reinventing rockets. As Cernan says, "The enemy of good is better. We don't need to make the trip fancy, let's just get there." Bean agrees. While helping to evaluate new lunar tools at Johnson Space Center, he says, "I told them we already have a hammer than can break rocks. Get that money where you're trying to solve new problems." The advice, he says, "didn't really set in."

Technology is only a boon to the extent that humans stay in control of it. What ruffles Cernan, a former Navy pilot who still flies Lear jets, is that Constellation is heading toward technology overload; engineers have already joked that the program's astronauts won't have to do much besides enjoy the ride. "If we take the human capability out of the system we're going to fail," says Cernan, suggesting the Soviets learned that the hard way when they designed automated, ground-controlled spacecraft that failed. "Technology is an aid, not a crutch." Bean is more bullish than his colleague on Constellation's possible new designs, but agrees that human control is crucial to spaceflight, particularly since a lightning strike took his Apollo 12 instruments off-line right after launch, leaving him to to regain control manually.

Despite a deep-seated skepticism, both men still consider themselves two of NASA's greatest cheerleaders. They say the agency has at least reoriented itself in the right direction — away from Earth — after too many homebound years. "I wouldn't go up on the space station for anything in the world," Cernan says. "Once you've been to the moon, staying home isn't good enough."

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