Looking ahead to rekindle the spirit of Apollo 17’s pioneering mission

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Published on: December 8, 2012

Dec. 8, 2012

Forty years ago on Dec. , 1972, at 12:33 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, Florida’s Space Coast and indeed the entire southeast of the United States lit up in a way never seen before, and not seen since, as Apollo 17 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center to begin our nation’s final lunar landing mission of the 20th Century.

The night launch of the mighty Saturn 5 Moon rocket turned the dark sky into day, with illumination so bright newscasters excitedly boasted they could read the numbers on the license plates of cars parked at the press site.

Offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, a cruise ship full of space notables and authors, including Isaac Asimov, Norman Mailer, Carl Sagan, Hugh Downs, and the great model rocketeer G. Harry Stine, among many others, all watched the spectacle and contemplated whether any of them would be alive to see the feat of a manned lunar landing repeated.

During the next 12 days, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Jack Schmidt successfully flew to the Moon, circled it, landed on it, walked on it, drove on it, returned from it and safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where the command module America was recovered by the USS Ticonderoga.

Flying the lunar module Challenger, Gene and Ron spent three days living and working on the lunar surface in a region of the Moon known as Taurus-Littrow. At the conclusion of their third and final moonwalk, before climbing up the ladder of Challenger to become the most recent man to walk on the Moon – I’ve always refused to call him or introduce him as the last man – Gene Cernan offered some words that, to me, were as historic as those uttered by Neil Armstrong three years earlier.

“I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just let what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

And now, just as we lamented during the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 2009, here we are again, still, heading in a direction whose path remains uncertain, or at the very least lacks consensus within segments of NASA, the space community at large, Congress and the White House.

Yes, we’ve had some movement in a positive direction with SpaceX and its Dragon capsule demonstrating that a new commercial way of getting into and out of space is possible. And yes, NASA is making slow progress toward designing and building the hardware that is supposed to return us beyond Earth orbit.

But there still seems to be too much hand wringing over exactly where it is we’re heading and for exactly what reasons. And despite pronouncements that NASA is to be taking us to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s, there still seems to be too little enthusiasm within the space community about the plan, or confidence the plan will survive future budget battles.

So during this week that we remember Apollo 17, which was the end of an era of space exploration that was an anomaly in human history and only made possible by a confluence of events that will not be repeated, two significant and credible space-related organizations released reports that offered fresh looks at NASA, its purpose and its capability to accomplish all it has on its plate.

On Tuesday the Space Foundation released a report called “PIONEERING: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space,” that suggested very specific ways, and rationales, for NASA to focus its efforts on one particular aspect of spaceflight: pioneering, which it defines as a four-step process that involves gaining access to targeted destinations, learning about those places to enable subsequent missions, coming up with useful technology to use at those places, and then handing off those technologies to others who can then fully take advantage of the resources and benefits that each destination offers.

In my opinion, the greatest strength of this report is that it does NOT address or attempt to prioritize specific places we might go, but instead offers a vision for how NASA can best be enabled to reach for any destination in space that we choose.

On Wednesday the National Academy of Sciences released a report called “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for National Consensus,” a title that truly summarizes the gist of the document, which also says NASA is spread too thin, needs to be more efficient in what it does, should partner more with others to share costs, and could use more money.

Both reports take different approaches for what could be called the “NASA problem,” and not all of their conclusions and recommendations line up with each other. But taken together, it’s clear that two very different, smart and objective organizations have both found NASA to be an agency that needs to have its mission more clearly defined and then better supported with the necessary organization and resources to accomplish its more refined goals.

All this in a week also in which a private company announced it would offer round-trip flights to the Moon for about $750 million a seat – and the people behind the company actually have some credibility about them in terms of their technical knowledge and entrepreneurial savvy. SpaceX won a pair of launch contracts from the Air Force that marked another first for the commercial space company. And scientists say Voyager 1 is getting stronger indications than ever before that it is finally at the very edge of our solar system and is ready to enter true interstellar space after launching from Cape Canaveral more than 35 years ago and traveling, so far, 11 billion miles.

With Apollo 17 and Voyager 1, with two important reports released about NASA, and with more news about what may be possible with spaceflight in the years to come; the past, present and future of space aligned this week in an inspiring and thought-provoking manner.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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