Washington D.C. - The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today held a hearing to examine the strategic goals and priorities of America’s human space exploration program, including the importance of space access and demonstrated leadership among space-faring nations, and the inspirational role of human space exploration. 

“NASA’s human space exploration program is fundamental to the agency’s mission and identity.  And it is synonymous with the image of American leadership around the world,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX).  “For an agency with a budget that consumes less than one-half of one percent of federal spending – and human space exploration is about 20 percent of that - NASA is renowned at home and around the world as a quintessential American enterprise whose feats no one has been able to duplicate.”

Discussing NASA’s long-delayed announcement to proceed with developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule capable of taking astronauts to the Moon and other deep space destinations, Chairman Hall said, “If NASA doesn’t move out quickly, more and more of our industrial base, skilled engineers and technicians, and hard-won capabilities are at risk of withering away.”  Hall concluded saying, “America needs leadership with a compelling vision, and the strength of commitment, or bright young engineers about to enter our workforce will likely look to disciplines other than aerospace if faced with such a protracted development cycle.”

Testifying for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program has ended, Commander of Apollo 11 and the first man to walk on the Moon, Mr. Neil Armstrong, expressed concerns with the current direction of America’s human space program.  “America cannot maintain a leadership position without human access to space,” Armstrong said.  “After a half century in which Americans were being launched into Earth orbit and beyond, Americans find themselves uncertain of when they can reasonably expect our astronauts to travel to the International Space Station or other off the earth destinations in other than a foreign built and commanded spacecraft.”

Mr. Armstrong insisted that America “must find ways of restoring hope and confidence to a confused and disconsolate work force.”  He said “The reality that there is no flight requirement for a NASA pilot-astronaut for the foreseeable future is obvious and painful to all who have, justifiably, taken great pride in NASA’s wondrous space flight achievements during the past half century.”

“Most importantly,” Mr. Armstrong said, “public policy must be guided by the recognition that we live in a technology driven world where progress is rapid and unstoppable. Our choices are to lead, to try to keep up, or to get out of the way. A lead, however earnestly and expensively won, once lost, is nearly impossible to regain.”

Captain Eugene A. Cernan USN (ret.), Commander of Apollo 17 and the last man to walk on the Moon, echoed similar concerns, particularly with the readiness of commercial companies to shoulder the load of launching American astronauts.  “We are seeing the book closed on five decades of accomplishments as the world’s leading space-faring nation,” Cernan said.  “We need an Administration that believes in and understands the importance of America’s commitment to regaining its pre-emminence in space. An administration which will provide us with a leader who will once again be bold, just as JFK was, and challenge our people to do what history has now told us is possible.”

“The space program has never been an entitlement,” Captain Cernan continued, “it’s an investment in the future – an investment in technology, jobs, international respect and geo-political leadership, and perhaps most importantly in the inspiration and education of our youth.  Now is the time to be bold, innovative and wise in how we invest in the future of America. Now is the time to re-establish our nation’s commitment to excellence. It is not about space – it’s about the country.”

Dr. Michael D. Griffin, Eminent Scholar and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at University of Alabama in Huntsville, and former NASA Administrator during the initiation of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services concept discussed his vision for the role of commercial launch companies. “A real space program may, and indeed should, offer a stable market to be addressed by commercial providers, but it cannot be dependent upon such providers for strategic capabilities,” Dr. Griffin said.  “A real space program recognizes that this nation has interests that rise above the fortunes of individual private contractors, and it protects those interests. The proper role of government is to reward winners, not to pick them, nor to step in as an investor in enterprises which cannot pass the tests that the capital markets impose.”

Even though the Space Shuttle has been retired, the U.S. still has the responsibility of providing crew transportation to the International Space Station for both NASA and our international partners.  Last Wednesday, September 14, 2011, the Administration and NASA announced plans to build the Space Launch System (SLS), which together with the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), are intended to give NASA the capability to explore space beyond low-Earth orbit and provide access to the International Space Station if commercial entities or our international partners cannot do the job.  Chairman Hall today said, “I am concerned that we need a viable backup system to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, should commercial crew launch companies not be able to deliver as hoped. And just as importantly, the SLS and MPCV programs begin the work of ensuring that America has an ongoing long-term exploration program.”

The following witnesses testified today before the Committee:

Mr. Neil A. Armstrong, Commander, Apollo 11

Captain Eugene A. Cernan USN (ret.), Commander, Apollo 17

Dr. Maria Zuber, E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and Head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. Michael D. Griffin, Eminent Scholar and Professor, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of Alabama in Huntsville