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When Will the Next 'Giant Leap' Happen?

Space Agency Looks for Clearer Vision

Apollo 11, the historic eight day mission to the moon, which took place from July 16-24, 1969, and made astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin household names, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

For fans of space exploration, the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's mission to the moon is a celebration mingled with melancholy.

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For all the promised "giant leap for mankind" the mission foretold, the prophesied future of moon bases and journeys to Mars, Jupiter and beyond is still science fiction. The last of six moon landings, bringing two men each time to the lunar surface, was in 1972. Since then, no one has left low Earth orbit. For many advocates, there is a consensus that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is suffering from what President Obama this March called "a sense of drift."

The astronauts who made the first moon landing are still alive, and so are many of the 600 million people around the world who watched the ghostly images of Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.'s first bounding steps on the dusty lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The video got less grainy Thursday, as NASA unveiled the beginnings of a restored version. But the generations born since then have other interests: A YouTube clip of the first moon walk has 2 million views; Michael Jackson moonwalking to "Billie Jean" has 20 million.

John Olson, who oversees NASA's future plans as its director of the Exploration Systems integration office, is quick to point out the agency's successes since the Apollo program ended: The Hubble telescope has provided breathtaking images of the universe; two remotely controlled rovers on Mars have discovered strong evidence of water there; and at this moment, 13 astronauts -- the biggest-ever gathering in space -- are in orbit installing new components of the international space station.

Yet the Apollo program easily looms over it all; it is hard to love a robotic rover. Even NASA's post-Apollo triumphs have been overshadowed by two space shuttle disasters: Challenger's destruction on launch in 1986 and Columbia's disintegration on reentry into Earth's atmosphere in 2003.

"The U.S. civilian space effort has moved forward for 30 years without a guiding vision," an independent board investigating the Columbia accident wrote in 2004.

The United States now has a plan for space exploration that includes a return to the moon by 2020. And on Wednesday, the Senate confirmed NASA's new administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former astronaut who has vowed to restore the agency's sense of mission.

But some prominent supporters remain dissatisfied.

Aldrin himself critiqued the nation's space exploration strategy in a Washington Post op-ed piece Thursday, saying that, like Apollo, "this plan will prove to be a dead end littered with broken spacecraft, broken dreams and broken policies." He said that to rekindle pride in its program, the United States needs to embrace a vision that, for the moment, sounds impossible: a homestead on Mars.

"With all due deference -- my gosh, he is the second man to walk on the surface of the moon -- that doesn't mean that going to the moon isn't a worthy goal," Olson responded in an interview.

Getting back to the moon will be difficult. Human space exploration has always moved in tandem with political realities. In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed a voyage to Mars, but critics saw it as a ploy to distract the public from the war in Iraq, and it was hardly referred to thereafter.

Even President John F. Kennedy, who issued the challenge to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s, framed his goal in the context of a Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union that intensified when the Communist regime hurled the Sputnik satellite into orbit in 1957.

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