Sunday, August 2, 2009

Former NASA controller supports mission to Mars

On July 20, Americans marked the 40th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon — this country's triumph in the space race launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
However, the Apollo 11 crew that executed that historic mission — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon, and Michael Collins — spent more time talking about the future than past glories in an appearance July 19 at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
They called for a mission to Mars to revive interest in the U.S. space program, to the point of placing a colony on the red planet.
Bob Carlton, one of the men behind that successful moon landing in 1969, agrees with that goal, but is pessimistic about whether it can be achieved.
"It would be worthwhile to go to Mars, but it probably won't be us that does it because we're no longer motivated," said Carlton, who grew up in Rainbow City and served as flight controller in charge of guidance, navigation and control systems for the Lunar Module Eagle during its descent to the moon.
Carlton, who lives in La Porte, Texas, said public interest in the space program has ebbed.
"The only ones who would be interested now (in going to Mars) are the scientists," he said.
President George W. Bush in 2004 proposed sending Americans back to the moon. NASA currently is working on a scenario to put a new manned spacecraft into earth orbit by 2015, scrapping the space shuttle program, with a target date of 2020 for a lunar landing.
The last Apollo mission to the moon, Apollo 17, took place in 1972.
Carlton, however, opposes another lunar landing program.
"Why? To get more science data? It would only be a detour," Carlton said.
"If we go back there, we'll never go anywhere else. It will be a dead end."
That's a 180-degree change from Carlton's opinion in 1972. Three additional Apollo moon missions were scheduled, but were canceled by NASA because of declining public interest and pressure in Congress and from President Richard Nixon's administration to direct money toward other national priorities.
"When Congress pulled the plug, I was utterly frustrated," Carlton said.
"We had the hardware at the cape (Canaveral) for more missions. The teams were in place, the spacecraft were bought and ready to go and at the time I couldn't understand it. Now I think we did the right thing.
"When you stop and think about it, all the great accomplishments in history, people remember who did it first," he said.
"The people who climbed Mount Everest, Admiral Byrd (Richard, first man to fly over the North Pole and South Pole). The U.S. was the first to land on the moon, and we're still first every time they replay it. We could have done 100 more moon missions, but the public had lost interest."
So had the scientists.
Carlton noted that equipment had been left on the moon by Apollo astronauts that continued sending data for several years, but it eventually was turned off.
A mission to Mars would be another "first," which was the point Carlton made in a letter he's written to President Barack Obama and members of Congress, challenging them to take on that goal.
He listed three major, but not insurmountable, obstacles to a Mars mission:
1. Working around the problem of men being able to stay healthy in the long period of radiation exposure and zero gravity travel that would be required.
2. Designing space systems that would have to reliably operate for a number of years.
3. Figuring out a way to launch a craft from the surface of Mars into orbit to rendezvous with a mother ship for the trip back to Earth.
In the letter, Carlton expresses the fear that another nation, most notably China, might achieve that "first" ahead of the U.S., especially if NASA expends its resources on a "pointless sidetrack" lunar landing program.
"I have no doubt that if our president and our Congress (have) the vision and the guts to challenge our nation toward that great goal," he wrote, "then Americans will once again make history."
NEXT: The Apollo 11 moon landing: Eighteen seconds from "abort."

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