WASHINGTON (DC) - Six Apollo astronauts held a news briefing in Washington earlier today to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. And what they said wasn't necessarily what their bosses wanted to hear. In an inspiring demonstration of the right stuff, they argued with the politics behind the space program - and with each other.
Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13; Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11; Dave Scott, Apollo 15; Charlie Duke, Apollo 16; and Tom Stafford, Apollo 10 spoke on their experiences and - more importantly - what they saw in the future. They were agreed that future should inspire young people to become involved, just as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo inspired the kids who grew up to become NASA's current astronauts.
"We have turned into a risk-averse society. There are some things worth risking your life for," said Apollo 7's Walt Cunningham, referring to the servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope where a systems failure would have meant no happy landings.
Gene Cernan, who flew on Apollo 10 and 17, spoke passionately about the International Space Station's mission being compromised by politics and it being placed in a lower orbit than originally planned in order that it was in the reach of Russian Soyuz spacecraft, thus making it pretty much useless as a way station for missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
"Do we really want to ask if we can have a ride up to our space station after the shuttle is retired?" he asked.
On the space shuttle: "We originally had a plan to have two parts of the spacecraft land on a runway and we kinda mucked that up," said another, tactfully. "Do you really want to go back to landing in the ocean or on a desert?"
Private enterprise was the way forward if only to put an end to everything being done on the cheap. "And do we really want Richard Branson to do this, rather than us?"
Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin was clear on what he wanted to see in the future - a manned mission to Mars and a one-way one. "What's the point of sending someone to the Moon or Mars for a few weeks and then bringing them home? We should be sending people to Mars with the intention that they spend their entire careers working there. Bringing them back makes the mission cost ten times as much.
"The Pilgrim Fathers didn't cross the Atlantic worrying about how they'd return home again."
And highlighting the political climate in the 1960s, another added: "If it hadn't been for the space program, everyone on this stage would have been in South East Asia, shooting down Migs. Apollo really was the flower in the barrel of the rifle."
As someone who spent hours glued to the radio 40 years ago today, I don't mind admitting that these passionate men brought a tear to my eye, together with a reminder of just what the USA can achieve when it wants to.