Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech declaring that the United States should, by the end of that decade, put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. Now that man — Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong — has produced an opinion piece for USA Today, co-written by fellow Apollo mission commanders Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) and Gene Cernan (Apollo 17), blasting the Obama administration for creating disarray in the human spaceflight program.

The astronauts write:

“America’s leadership in space is slipping. NASA’s human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing. We will have no rockets to carry humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond for an indeterminate number of years. Congress has mandated the development of rocket launchers and spacecraft to explore the near-solar system beyond Earth orbit. But NASA has not yet announced a convincing strategy for their use. After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent....John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.”

Let me quickly note that I have tremendous admiration for these guys. They’re authentic American heroes. They went to the moon, whereas I find it a struggle to make it all the way to Rockville. Armstrong joysticked an extremely dicey lunar landing on an unfamiliar world with a questionable surface and only seconds of fuel to spare. I once parallel parked niftily in Manhattan. And so on.

But there are a couple of things missing in this piece by Armstrong et al.

First: Where do they want to go, exactly?

Kennedy pointed to the moon. The moon was ripe for the taking. It was the obvious, if audacious, target for a space program that was an offshoot of the Cold War missile race. There was a political context for ramping up an expensive program to beat the Soviets to the moon.

Now, that enemy no longer exists, and any space strategy has to be carried out in the context of tight budgets, looming debt, and the difficult fact that the obvious destination for human spaceflight is a planet that’s a long way from here.

If you want to go to Mars, ultimately, what’s the best strategy for getting there? Constellation envisioned a return to the moon as part of a long-term strategy to achieve a Martian landing. Armstrong, Lovell and Cernan evidently think that going back to the moon is a good idea. But in this opinion piece, and in a recent open letter to Obama, [Update: no, I’m wrong here, it’s not an open letter to Obama, just an essay; it was described by MSNBC as an ”open letter” that “urged” President Obama to reconsider his policies, but it’s not a missive TO the president, just an essay that the astronauts wrote in response to the president’s NASA budget] they don’t talk about destinations except in passing. They focus primarily on the decision to kill Constellation, which included a new rocket, the Ares 1. And they say that $10 billion spent on Constellation has essentially been wasted.

Actually, NASA announced just yesterday that it would build a new crew capsule based on Constellation’s Orion spacecraft and the Orion contract held by Lockheed.

The astronauts refer to an “administration-appointed review committee” that didn’t think Constellation was a viable program as currently funded. That committee was a presidential commission [but it called itself a “committee”] led by Norman Augustine, the former head of Martin Marietta and a highly respected figured in the aerospace world. The commission included astronaut Sally Ride and others generally friendly to NASA and the space program.

The Augustine Commission found that the Constellation program would not actually get us to the moon by 2020, as President Bush hoped, and that even if it got us to the moon circa 2028 there wouldn’t be any money left in the budget to actually land on the moon.

There was only enough money to crash on the moon.

So that was the disarray that Obama inherited. Several billion dollars extra a year might have solved the Constellation timetable/funding issues, but it’s been a given at NASA headquarters for many years that the agency couldn’t expect a major boost in its budget and would have to shut down some programs (space shuttle, for example) if it wanted to start another.

Constellation might have worked, but at the end of it, you would have had something that looked strikingly like the Apollo program. I don’t think Constellation ever transcended the “been there, done that” problem.

It’s easy to romanticize JFK and his bold reach for the moon. But you can’t turn back the clock. Nor can you reinvent the solar system to create another world that’s only a few million miles away, just past the moon. And although we’ll surely have faster propulsion systems in the future, for the moment we’re stuck in he present. In the Times, John Noble Wilford sounds a realist note:

“Apollo was not a realistic model for future endeavors in space exploration. Going to the Moon had been, above all, a campaign in the cold war.”

That’s political reality. The only game-changer, I’m guessing, would be if China suddenly launched a moon rocket and started talking about a Mars mission.

How do you say “one small step for man” in Mandarin?