Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the focus is not on the past, but on the future. The seven astronauts in attendance at this morning’s NASA news conference were not content simply to relish in the accomplishments of the past.
Astronauts Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7), James Lovell (Apollo 8 and 13), David Scott (Apollo 15), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Charles Duke (Apollo 16), Thomas Stafford (Apollo 10 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and Eugene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17) gathered at NASA headquarters to discuss the achievements of the past and the promise of the future.
Many of the astronauts, including Aldrin and Cernan, think missions to Mars, instead of further exploration of the moon, are the future of space exploration. Cernan said he had thought that the space program would have been on its way to Mars by the turn of the century. Even though the program is behind this schedule, he says, Mars is the direction it needs to go. “The ultimate goal is truly the goal of Mars,” he says.
Aldrin, who also spoke about the necessity of Mars exploration last night at the annual John Glenn lecture at the National Air and Space Museum, echoed Cernan’s thoughts. “To me, exploration is going to some place you haven’t been before,” he says. But Aldrin also took the idea one step further.
He doesn’t want to just send astronauts to Mars and bring them back. He wants them to stay. After all, he says, the pilgrims didn’t go to Plymouth Rock to hang out for a while and then find their way back home. Neither should the Mars explorers.
Cunningham agrees but knows that money and politics, not technology, set the limits for space exploration. “We have to find a reason to go to Mars that can sustain the funding,” he says. Until then, the goal is unreachable.
The future of the space program might be uncertain, but the minds of these astronauts are made up: the moon landing 40 years ago isn’t an end, but rather an open door. To go through that door, Americans’ sense of adventure needs to be re-inspired, Cunningham thinks. We have transformed into a risk-averse nation, and that needs to change, he says. “There are some things worth risking your life for.”