The first and last men to walk on the moon told a congressional committee today that the United States needs to figure out a way to get back into space.
Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that NASA needs a "master plan" to get Americans back in space.
Since the space shuttle program was grounded earlier this year, the only way for American astronauts to get into low Earth orbit or to the International Space Station is to hitch a ride with the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
"For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable," Armstrong said, according to a written statement he submitted before the hearing.
Gene Cernan, who in 1972 became the last man to set foot on the moon, said the space shuttles should be put back in service. In his testimony, Armstrong suggested the U.S. let commercial companies operate the shuttles.
"Get the shuttle out of the garage," MSNBC quotes Cernan as saying. "It's in its prime of its life. How could we just put it away?"
Cernan, according the AFP, criticized the Obama administration's cancellation of the Constellation program, which sought to put men on the moon once again. Cernan said the program had been replaced by a "mission to nowhere."
"Today, we are on a path of decay," he said. "We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishment as the leader in human space exploration."
Some positives did come out of the hearing: Armstrong extended his support for NASA's proposed Space Launch System, which the agency said could one day take man to Mars.
"Predicting the future is inherently risky, but the proposed Space Launch System (SLS) includes many proven and reliable components which suggest that its development could be relatively trouble free. If that proves to be so, it would bode well for exploration," said Armstrong.
The Houston Chronicle reports on NASA's response:
"We respect the contributions Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan have made in service to our country, and thank them for helping to pave the way for our exciting future forward," said David Weaver, a NASA spokesman, said in a statement issued after the astronauts' testimony.
"Just as their ambitious missions captivated the nation's attention nearly a half-century ago, today's American space explorers are leading the way to even farther destinations that will one day allow the first astronauts to set foot on Mars.
"It is a bold vision laid out by President Obama and Congress, in bi-partisan fashion, to pioneer new frontiers, push the bounds of exploration, and test the limits of innovation and technological development."