Washington (AFP) July 20, 2009
As the world marked the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing Monday, astronauts urged Americans to take inspiration from the Apollo program and go back to the moon and beyond, to Mars.
"We need to go back to the moon," Eugene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, told a news conference held with half a dozen other astronauts from the Apollo program.
"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," Cernan said.
James Lovell, who flew on Apollo 8 the first to circle the moon, and Apollo 13, which transmitted the words "Houston, we have a problem" after losing much of its power and water 200,000 miles from Earth, called Mars "the other moon."
Mars was a tangible goal that could rekindle public enthusiasm for manned space flight, he said.
"People had been thinking about going to the moon for hundreds of years and suddenly last century, that became a reality," said Lovell.
"Every time someone walked outside and saw the moon -- that was the goal we were striving for," he said.
The excitement surrounding the Apollo missions was ratcheted up because of the space race with the Soviet Union, said Lovell.
"That challenge is not there any more. It's hard to recreate, which is why I think some of us are saying Mars is good to do: it's the other moon," he said.
An estimated 500 million people crowded round televisions and radios to watch Neil Armstrong step out of the Apollo 11 lunar lander onto the the moon's Sea of Tranquility and declare on July 20, 1969: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
But the goal set by former president George W. Bush to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 and fly on to Mars under the Constellation project is increasingly in doubt -- largely because the costs are prohibitive, especially amid such economic hardship.
The cost of Constellation has been put at about 150 billion dollars, but estimates for the Ares I launcher to put the project into orbit have skyrocketed from 26 billion dollars (18.2 billion euros) in 2006 to 44 billion dollars last year.
President Barack Obama has ordered a close examination of the program, and a blue-ribbon panel of experts headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine is due to issue recommendations in late August.
The future of manned space flight was likely to come up at a meeting later Monday between Obama and Apollo 11 crew, including Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.
At Monday's news conference Aldrin called for a bold resumption of the US space exploration program, with Mars as the goal.
"There may be life on Mars and if there is, it's damn sure we ought to go there and look at it," Aldrin said.
"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," he said.
Cernan chided Americans for turning into a society that shuns risk-taking, calling off some space missions because there is "no safe-haven" if things go wrong.
"We need to get back to the point where we are no longer a risk-averse society. There are some things that are worth risking your life for," he said.
Although the Apollo program was stopped in the 1970s, Cernan said he nevertheless had expected man to return to the moon and go on to Mars by the year 2000.
"I kept saying it's not the end. It's the beginning, and 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," he said.
"My glass has been half empty for three decades at least," he said.
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