Two years ago, Neil Armstrong visited the Netherlands to hold alecture at the “Meet the Future” Summit in the Hague. He talkedabout his vision on space travel and what it takes to become a truepioneer.
Candidate for command at 80
According to the legendary astronaut, the principal goalof every space policy should be the “continuing exploration” ofspace. This entails that we put more efforts in getting back to themoon and ultimately send a spacecraft to the Mars. Ideas within theObama administration to first try to fly to an asteroid he called”ill-advised” at best. Landing on a smaller object like an asteroidwould be extremely difficult and yield little value forscience.
Another issue was the current budget cuts at NASA. “These wouldonly delay the Mars mission further”, said Armstrong and he toldthat he had objected in an open letter to president Obama, signedby him and a group of (retired) astronauts. In the light of hisstrong stances, it could not come as a surprise that unstoppableArmstrong himself offered to lead the next mission to the Mars. Theonly thing he would do different as the mission-commander this timewould be making sure that there is a “good caterer” onboard sinceastronaut food out of tubes is not something he did not in thesixties and would not in future “pay a lot of money for”.
Farm boy landing on the Moon
Neil Armstrong discovered his passion for engineeringearly on in his life. 6 years old he visited his grandfather’s farmand tried to ride and to figure out his tractors. Since grammarschool he dreamed of becoming an airplane designer. This dreambecame true, but he wanted to know what his ‘client’, the fighterpilot experienced in order to improve his designs. This led to aremarkable change in careers. So not his airplane designs made himfamous. In 1969 with 450 million people watching, Neil Armstrongbecame the first man to set foot on the moon.
“I felt surprise, elation and gratitude [when we landed on themoon]… I was never afraid though, but continuously apprehensive ofthe danger of the mission.” The biggest difficulty for him was thelanding process above the moon surface, which was done manually.Only radar instruments could tell them how high above the lunarground they were and how fast they were approaching this. Heestimated he had a 50 % chance of landing successfully on the firsttry.
When asked whether he would have allowed his son to participate insuch a dangerous mission, he laughed and stated “Well….parents arevery protective”. He would ask his son what his goal is, howvaluable that goal is to him and how high the risk is since “noprogress is made without risk”. He admitted though that he himselfdid not dare to ask his parents for permission to go to the moon.Nor his wife.
Aliens and Commercial Space Exploration
Regarding the existence of extra-terrestrial life, NeilArmstrong follows the ideas of Stephen Hawking who says that it isstatistically very probable that there is life on at least one ofthe many planets in space. Armstrong admits that it is hard toimagine that there are intelligent life forms other than us. Buthis guess is that “if I were to create the universe, why wouldleave all these planets empty?”
That commercial spacecraft is going to play an important role infuture space exploration is rather unlikely according to him.Current suborbital commercial flights might enable one to see longdistances and experience weightlessness which is “inspiring,enjoyable and even spiritual”. But in the end, such flights takeonly 5% of the energy needed to enter into orbit.
So flights with a higher ambition tend to be very expensive indeedand therefore very risky as an enterprise. To explore space furtherone would need much more sophisticated engineering which can beonly provided by nations, not entrepreneurs. Armstrong thereforepreferred a more strategic approach of scientists, engineers andpolitical leaders in setting goals and sticking to them.
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