By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Those astronauts who flew to the moon are some tough old coots.
Silver-haired but still full of swagger, seven of the Apollo astronauts paid a visit to NASA's headquarters in Southwest Washington on Monday morning to offer their thoughts on the 40th anniversary of humanity's first steps on the moon. But they didn't indulge in much happy reflection, instead giving the American public and politicians a piece of their minds.
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, a member of the Apollo 11 crew and the second man to set foot on the lunar surface, and his fellow astronauts Walt Cunningham, Jim Lovell, David Scott, Charles Duke, Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan appeared on a stage, missing none of their old pugnacity as space men and fighter jocks with what Tom Wolfe famously called "the right stuff."
"No cuss words?" one of them muttered before the conference started. They mostly followed that rule, but otherwise they argued, joked and called it like they saw it.
The international space station? "Almost a white elephant," Lovell, 81, the commander of the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission, said as he questioned the wisdom of plans to deactivate the station in 2016.
NASA spending less than 1 percent of the federal budget? "That's idiotic, in my opinion," said Cunningham, 77, a crew member on Apollo 7. (That was the first manned Apollo mission to be successfully launched.)
Life on Mars? "There may be life on Mars. If there is, it's for damn sure we'd better go there and look at it. . . . We'll bring it there. Whether it's germs and leftover urine bags, or whatever it is," said Aldrin, 79. (And Aldrin punched a guy out a few years ago for calling him a liar.)
Several astronauts said they were surprised that mankind hadn't sent a human to Mars by now. It was once assumed that the lunar mission was simply a small step to the red planet, but that ambitious mission is still far from reality. NASA's plan is to return to the moon by 2020, and a Mars flight would be much harder.
"It's very expensive. It costs about two jillion dollars, whatever," said David Scott, the commander of the Apollo 15 mission and the first man to drive a lunar rover on the moon. "We have to find a reason to go to Mars that will continue the funding."
This tripped off a debate, as Aldrin and Cunningham argued that spending on space would be an investment in the country's future.
Cunningham said there wasn't the same desire for "dangerous adventure" as there was in former years: "We have allowed our country to turn into a risk-adverse society. It's reflected in NASA, it's reflected in everything we do today," he said.
Later in the day, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins -- the three Apollo 11 crew members -- met with President Obama at the Oval Office. Obama praised the pioneers for their accomplishments and described them as "genuine American heroes."
"I think that all of us recall the moment in which mankind finally was untethered from this planet and was able to explore the stars, the moment in which we had one of our own step on the moon and leave that imprint that is there to this day," Obama said.
The retired astronauts stood under a portrait of George Washington as Obama talked about the impression they left on generations of children.
"I still recall sitting on my grandfather's shoulders when those capsules would land in the middle of the Pacific, and they'd get brought back and we'd go out and we'd pretend like they could see us as we were waving at folks coming home," said Obama, who was born and raised in Hawaii. "And I remember waving American flags and my grandfather telling me that the Apollo mission was an example of how Americans can do anything they put their minds to."
Monday's celebrations in Washington included a panel at the Newseum and a reception at the National Air and Space Museum.
"We felt like we had a job to do," Aldrin said at the news conference at NASA headquarters. "Were there emotions involved in that? No. We were trying to make a successful landing. You're not worrying. You're not fearful."
Cernan, the last man on the moon -- he flew his mission in 1972 -- disagreed. He said that during his lunar landing he could see Earth the whole time out the front window. "If that isn't emotion, then I don't know what is," he said.
Staff writer Cheryl W. Thompson contributed to this report.