TUCSON, Ariz. - With Atlantis poised to leave Earth one last time, signaling an end to more than 30 years of space shuttle flights, some of the nation's best-known former astronauts are speaking out about NASA retiring its reusable spacecraft and what it might mean to the future of manned space flight.
During SpaceFest III last month in Tucson, Ariz., questions about Atlantis' final launch -- possibly as early as Friday -- sparked strong opinions from 11 space pioneers.
-- Apollo 11 astronaut retired Air Force Col. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Ph.D., 81, Los Angeles.
"In January 2004, we embarked on a program to complete the space station, to retire the orbiter in 2010 and land on the moon by 2020 -- a good program implemented very poorly. The shuttle is very expensive, complex and -- other than a great technical achievement -- did not live up to expectations.
"... Constellation failed miserably -- just ... see if anybody wants to keep Constellation going -- rockets, or multipurpose spacecraft, or any of it.
"... I question whether (separating crew and cargo) was really a good decision in the '70s, since the shuttle configuration that we know was not what NASA wanted -- they and many others wanted a fully reusable runway-landing, two-staged shuttle with liquid propellant."
Biography: In October 1963, NASA named Aldrin to the third group of astronauts. He and command pilot James Lovell launched into space Nov. 11, 1966, aboard the Gemini 12 spacecraft, the final mission of the Gemini program. Aldrin served as lunar module pilot for Apollo 11 in 1969, and followed Neil Armstrong onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, becoming the second man to walk on the moon. Aldrin resigned from NASA in 1971, and has written several books, including "Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon," with Ken Abraham.
-- Apollo 17 astronaut retired Navy Capt. Eugene A. Cernan, 77, Houston.
"You know, I was the last of Apollo. So, when it comes to the last, everybody all of a sudden says, 'Hey, it's over; and I can't believe it's over. Apollo is over. I can't believe we're not going back to the moon for a while.' And that's what people are beginning to think and say now. But how do I feel about it? It's the most dumb decision at this moment in time for this country -- not just the space program -- for the country, to retire the most capable vehicle we've ever designed, built and flown.
"The worst part about it is, it leaves us with no access -- human access -- to space, period for some indefinite time into the future. The United States of America has got a $100 billion space station up there -- we paid for it. It's an international space station, but you and I paid for it. And we are now relinquishing our ability -- we're abrogating our leadership in space. That's why it's ludicrous. Fifty years ago, (President John) Kennedy said, he challenged this country to do the impossible, to go to the moon. Fifty years ago. Half a century. The Russians owned space at that point in time.
"We took over the leadership, both technologically, diplomatically, and in every other way in space from the Soviet Union. Fifty years later, we've done a complete circle and we're giving that leadership back to the same people.
"I can go back to Apollo, and I can understand why we terminated Apollo at that point in time," he said. "And we did other things with hardware that were good, but at this point in time, with nothing -- since (President Barack) Obama canceled Constellation, we have nothing on the horizon to pick up and shorten the gap."
"Since you've been a child, every day of your life, the United States has been able to get humans into space. You're going to wake up in July, for the first time in your life, and you're going to realize that the United States of America no longer can get a human being into space. Think about that ....."
Biography: In 1966, Cernan and command pilot Tom Stafford manned the Gemini 9 mission. He served as backup pilot for Gemini 12, was the backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 7, and flew as the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 10 mission, the first verification flight test of an Apollo lunar module. Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon during his third space flight in 1972 as spacecraft commander of Apollo 17. He wrote "The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space," with Don Davis.
-- Apollo 7 astronaut retired Marine Col. Walter Cunningham, 79, Houston.
"They aren't mothballing the shuttle -- they've quit it. They've stopped it. It's the worst decision ever made by NASA, to ground the shuttle without a replacement. And a replacement would be very difficult because this is the greatest flying machine ever developed and built; it's the safest spacecraft that we have ever flown into orbit.
"It's really bad for NASA, but more importantly, it's terrible for our country. Because right now, it's doing away with the kind of imagination and dreaming that it takes to reach out and explore. And when you can't be the preeminent space nation in the world, you're surrendering things. I'm much more concerned about its impact on the country than I am just its impact on NASA.
"We better hope that the so-called space industry is successful, because it's the only thing we're going to have going for us. And there's no question that a commercial company can cut through some of the delays and cost, because they're not big and bureaucratic yet. So, it might be a little bit cheaper, but it's going to be a hell of a lot more expensive than they think, and it's going to take a lot longer than they think before they can have any kind of man-rated vehicle flying."
Biography: Cunningham was selected by NASA to train as an astronaut in 1963. On Oct. 11, 1968, he piloted the lunar module for the Apollo 7 mission, along with spacecraft commander Walter M. Schirra Jr. and command module pilot Donn F. Eisele. The 11-day flight was the first manned flight test of the third-generation U.S. spacecraft. Cunningham was also the backup lunar module pilot to the crew of Apollo 1. When the Apollo 1 spacecraft burned on the launch pad, killing the three-man crew, Cunningham, Schirra and Eisele were assigned to fly the first manned Apollo mission. After retiring from NASA in 1971, Cunningham wrote "The All-American Boys: An Insider's Look at the U.S. Space Program."
-- Apollo 16 astronaut retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Moss Duke Jr., 75, San Antonio.
"I've got mixed feelings, sort of sweet and sour if you will," he said. "Sweet that we've had such success with the shuttle, and it's been going for so long and does such a great job. And disappointed -- if you will, the sour part -- because it's ending. And we don't have any follow-up program. And so that's sad for me."
Biography: Duke was one of 19 astronauts selected by NASA in 1966. He served as a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 10, he was CAPCOM (Mission Control "Capsule Communicator," the astronaut who spoke directly to Apollo astronauts during their moon missions) for Apollo 11, and he served as backup lunar module pilot on Apollo 13. Duke was the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 16 mission in 1972, along with spacecraft Cmdr. John W. Young and command module pilot Thomas K. Mattingly II. Duke also served as backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 17, and wrote the book "Moonwalker," with his wife, Dotty Duke.
-- Apollo 12 astronaut retired Navy Capt. Richard "Dick" Gordon Jr., 81, Prescott, Ariz.
"Well, it's the end of an era, and before I retired in 1972, I worked on the shuttle systems. And here we are from our first flight to 30 years later, where we're ending a very significant space program and it's just very unfortunate that we don't have anything to replace it with.
"If Mr. (Arne) Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, is looking for something to inspire our children in education, the space program of the 1960s surely did that. And they don't have anything to replace it as an inspiration and motivation for our young people. I wish they'd find something."
Biography: Gordon was one of the third group of astronauts named by NASA in October 1963. He served as backup pilot for the Gemini 8 flight. In 1966, he was pilot of the three-day Gemini 11 mission, and was the backup command pilot for Apollo 9. Gordon was the command module pilot during the Apollo 12 moon mission in November 1969, with spacecraft Cmdr. Charles "Pete" Conrad and lunar module pilot Alan L. Bean. He served as backup spacecraft commander for Apollo 15. In 1972, Gordon retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy.
-- Apollo 13 astronaut Fred W. Haise Jr., 78, Pasadena, Calif.
"Frankly when I think about it, it's now been a long time -- it's been 34 years since I first flew the shuttle. I made the first three flights in Enterprise, back in 1977. And seeing its performance over so many years and realizing that it's really not used up a lot of its lifetime, it's a shame to see it go when we really do not have a replacement in hand.
"We're going to obviously be dependant on the Russians to supply rides up and down to the space station for quite a few years, until the commercial entities hopefully get traction and can fill in in that regard. But that's a few years ahead. So I hate to see it go, certainly in that light.
"I frankly would have liked to have seen us build another shuttle, like airplanes go through model changes. If you look at the F-86 Saber Jet, it was the A model we used in Korea, and probably the best 86 of them all was the F-86 H model. So it took many iterations and improvements to get what I call the best of the breed. So you know, the shuttle is like the DC-3, in the sense of aviation. We've done a lot better since we've kept building airline transports to the day, and kept improving each one as you went forward."
Biography: One of 19 astronauts selected by NASA in April 1966, Haise served as backup lunar module pilot for the Apollo 8 and 11 missions and backup spacecraft commander for the Apollo 16 mission. He served as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 13 in 1970. From April 1973 to January 1976, he was technical assistant to the manager of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Project. He was commander of one of the two two-man crews who piloted space shuttle approach and landing test flights in 1977.
-- Apollo 13 astronaut retired Navy Capt. James A. Lovell, 83, Lake Forest, Ill.
"Well, this is the last part of the shuttle program, the last orbiter to go down. We had a program that was going to follow on that -- it was the Constellation. Now we don't have a definite time or program of where we're going to go next.
"I think that President (John F.) Kennedy, as I and (Apollo 11 astronaut) Neil (Armstrong) and (Apollo 17 astronaut) Gene Cernan mentioned in our (USA Today) op-ed piece, that for 50 years we sailed the steel ocean that President Kennedy had so designated when he said we were going to go to the moon. And now we're going to let somebody else do that. Actually, we'll probably not have access to the International Space Station except for one person going on the Soyuz each time. ... And eventually, unless we find another way of getting there again, which people say we'll have that, we'll probably abandon the space station to the Russians."
Biography: After being selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1962, Lovell served as backup pilot for the Gemini 4 flight, backup commander for Gemini 9 and backup commander to Neil Armstrong for Apollo 11. Lovell flew on Gemini 7 with Frank Borman in 1966, and a year later he flew the Gemini 12 mission with Aldrin. Lovell also flew aboard Apollo 8 in 1968, and served as spacecraft commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight in April 1970.
He's the author of "Apollo 13: Lost Moon," with Jeffrey Kluger.
-- Shuttle astronaut retired Navy Capt.Bruce McCandless II, 74, Conifer, Colo.
"I'm pleased that we collectively have gotten to the point where we can process launch and recovery of the space shuttle reliably, and to have a string of what amounts to flawless missions. In my opinion, it truly demonstrated a mastery of this vehicle, and applying it to this mission of transportation to and from lower Earth orbit.
"If you look at parallels, I shouldn't say parallels but possibly spin-offs, the shuttle is really the first totally computer-controlled fly-by-wire, fly-by-computer airplane. And we now have commercial airliners, such as the Boeing 777, which are totally computerized in their flight-control systems as well and I'd like to believe that the shuttle was instrumental in promoting acceptance of that concept.
"I guess in every program there ultimately is an end point. I am disappointed that we do not have an American successor to the shuttle immediately in the future, or becoming immediately available in the future. But I'm optimistic that can be remedied.
"But there's no reason we shouldn't, in my opinion, be developing a system to take us to and from the moon in parallel with continuing to operate the shuttle and emphasizing cost-reduction techniques and improved management techniques and efficiencies in processes."
Biography: McCandless, one of 19 astronauts selected by NASA in 1966, served as a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 14, and was backup pilot for the first manned Skylab mission. He also collaborated on the development of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) used during shuttle external spacewalks. In February 1984, he flew aboard STS-41B Challenger and conducted the first un-tethered, free flight on each of two MMU's carried on board. He also flew aboard STS-31 Discovery, launched April 24, 1990, for a five-day mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope.
-- Apollo 14 astronaut retired Navy Capt. Edgar D. Mitchell, 80, Lake Worth, Fla.
"First, the shuttle itself is 30 years old. It's getting increasingly difficult to keep it in space because it's an old machine. So we need something new, and we'll just have to muddle our way through until it becomes clear. I mean, this isn't the end of space flight by any means. We'll just have to keep going."
"... We will go to Mars in due course, but when we go to Mars and look back at this tiny, tiny, little planet from that distance, it will become silly to say we're from the United States or Canada, or wherever. No, we came from Earth. And we're not ready to do that yet."
Biography: NASA selected Mitchell for astronaut training in 1966. He served as a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 9 and as backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 10. During the Apollo 14 flight with spacecraft Cmdr. Adm. Alan Shepard and Col. Stuart Roosa, Mitchell became the sixth man to walk on the moon during the 1971 mission. After serving as backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 16, Mitchell retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy in 1972. He released his autobiography, "The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut's Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds," with Dwight Williams in 1996.
-- Apollo 10 astronaut retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, 80, Satellite Beach, Fla.
"I think (the end of the shuttle program is) a little shortsighted. Sure, we needed to look at this as a result of the Columbia accident. They recommended you have the crew separate from the cargo, after the Columbia accident. But also, (the shuttles are) still doing a great job ....We need to move on and continue.
"America has led human space flight starting with the Gemini program, while the Soviet Union led before that. It turns out we set the lead with Gemini, and now we're falling back."
Biography: In 1962, NASA selected Stafford for the second group of astronauts to participate in Gemini and Apollo projects. In December 1965, he piloted Gemini 6, the first rendezvous in space, and in June 1966, he commanded Gemini 9. Stafford was commander of Apollo 10 in May 1969, the first flight of the lunar module to the moon. He logged his fourth space flight as Apollo commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975, a joint space flight culminating in the first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.
-- Apollo 15 astronaut Alfred M. Worden, 79, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Vero Beach, Fla.
"I think it's sad that the country has lost its initiative -- it's lost its will to do things -- and that's all because of the people in Washington. I think we're in a great, leaderless society right now and the space program has taken a backseat to a lot of other things, even though, as we all pretty much know, the space program is the greatest motivator for youthful education and it's also a great incubator for new technology. So we're going to lose both of those things because of the shuttle going down."
Worden said he felt private space companies could fill in the gap NASA leaves, but he was skeptical about their chances of successful space exploration.
"I think it's probably going to happen sometime, but I'm not sure private industry can afford to do the things for the future that the government can do. I think private industry (has to) make money at whatever they get into. And the government does things for research, for exploration and for a lot of other things that private industry is not interested in. ... I just don't see private industry for a long time being able to take up the slack with the shuttle being stopped."
Biography: In 1966, NASA selected Worden to be an astronaut. He served as a member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 9 flight and as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 12 flight. Worden was the command module pilot for Apollo 15 mission in 1971. His companions on the flight were David R. Scott, spacecraft commander, and James B. Irwin, lunar module commander. As Scott and Irwin explored the lunar surface, Worden logged 38 minutes outside the command module Endeavour. On July 29, Worden is scheduled to release a new autobiography, "Falling to Earth," written with Frances French.
-- Source for astronaut biographies: Johnson Space Center, Houston, www.jsc.nasa.gov.