In a rare public appearance, Neil Armstrong yesterday urged NASA to set its sights on developing new capabilities for future generations, with a goal of human settlement in the universe around us.
The first man on the moon, now 78 years old, was speaking at a celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary, hosted by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
He praised NASA for what it has accomplished so far. "Our knowledge of the universe around us has increased a thousand fold and more," he said. "We learned that Homo sapiens was not forever imprisoned by the gravitational field of Earth ... We've seen deeply into our universe and looked backward nearly to the beginning of time."
According to Armstrong, NASA is carrying out one of the most important roles of government, which is to inspire its citizens "to love, to learn, to strive to participate in and contribute to societal progress", he said. "Our highest and most important hope is that the human race will improve its intelligence, its character, and its wisdom.”
But NASA ought now to be aiming to provide future generations with the means for living beyond Earth’s boundaries, Armstrong believes. It is about more than "just going faster and higher and further", he said. "Our goal – indeed our responsibility – is to develop new options for future generations: options in expanding human knowledge, exploration, human settlements and resource development, outside in the universe around us."
Humans on Mars
Another legendary astronaut, John Glenn, also spoke at the event. Glenn, who was the first American to orbit Earth, complained that insufficient funding for NASA means that it is not able to properly use the $100 billion International Space Station for the biotechnology, materials science, and other research it was intended to allow.
NASA was forced to cut funding for this research to pay for President Bush's vision of human Moon and Mars missions. That vision "was great except for one thing – the money didn't follow," Glenn said.
Also speaking at the event was NASA chief Mike Griffin, who lamented the other accomplishments that NASA might have made if better decisions had been taken in the past. "We're not, on our 50th anniversary, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first [human] landing on Mars – and we could have been," he said.
That is a consequence of the nation having lost its focus, he said, noting the irony of the Apollo-era spacecraft sitting in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum today. "There's nothing odd at looking at 40-year-old hardware in museums and admiring it and respecting it,” he said, “but only in American aerospace, of which I am aware, can we go to a museum and look at certain artifacts and wish that we could still do as well."
Looking forward, Griffin boasted that the nearly complete International Space Station will be “an engineering and scientific accomplishment beyond anything yet achieved by the human race."
He also said that present budgets make it possible to land humans on Mars within 30 years – if the money is directed unwaveringly towards that goal. "I know that to be true – it's available in the technology, and it's available in the budget, but it requires that we act with unusual persistence for Americans and that we stay the course," he said.