Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a “bloggers’ roundtable” organized by the Discovery Channel with Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan. the event was intended to promote their current documentary series about the space program, “When We Left Earth”, but the door was open to other questions about Cernan and the past and future of the space program. So, I asked him his thoughts on how the key players—NASA, the White House, and Congress—were doing on the Vision for Space Exploration to date, nearly four and a half years since its announcement, and any concerns he might have about the upcoming change in administrations.
Cernan, while disappointed with the slow pace of activity, was generally pleased with what the agency and key political actors have been doing. NASA, he said, “has done what they could right with the funding they have available.” As for Congress, “There’s a lot of support in Congress, on both sides of the aisle” for continuing to spend money on space, he added. In response to an earlier question, though, he said that the Shuttle-Constellation gap bothered him “quite a bit” but that he wasn’t sure what could be done about it.
Turning to the presidential campaign, Cernan became more critical. “Right now you haven’t heard one word in either primary, or probably won’t in the general election, about space,” he said. (One can argue that, while space hasn’t gotten the attention of big issues like Iraq or the economy, it has been mentioned more than one might have anticipated going into the campaign.) You do hear a lot of talk about education, he said, but education requires activities that will stimulate people to want to learn, such as space.
Cernan was particularly concerned with Barack Obama, saying that he would “basically… slow down the space program”, an apparent reference to the statement in the campaign’s education policy about delaying Constellation for five years. “I think it would go further than that, I think it would be slowed down for a decade or so,” he said. “For a number of reasons, quite frankly, I’m just not, for lots of reasons, politically and ideologically, as well as the space program, I’m not too excited about the potential of him being the President of the United States.”
Cernan was more optimistic about McCain, noting their shared background as naval aviators. “I think he’s got a better appreciation for the significance of technology” because of that experience, Cernan said.
Politicians in general, though, he said, don’t appreciate the impact Apollo had on the American people forth years ago. “The politicians of today, particularly the candidates for the presidency, have got to realize what that [Apollo] did to the American people at a time when we were down on ourselves.” Later, he said, “quite frankly, I’m not so sure we’re not in the same place today as we were then” and thus in the need of a morale boost like that provided by Apollo.
“Going back to the Moon and going on to Mars is going to be an international program, but we need to be the guy out front,” he said. “And if the presidential candidates don’t realize that, it’s going to be a long, hard summer.”