Bush invites Apollo team to White House

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International   |   July 12, 2004 at 9:46 AM
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WASHINGTON, July 12 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush has asked the Apollo 11 astronauts and their families to join him in a private meeting in the White House Oval Office next week, administration officials told United Press International.

Officials described the meeting -- on July 21, which is 35 years and one day after the first moon landing -- as a private affair and not an event. The three former astronauts -- Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins -- will attend along with their families. Other retired astronauts from the Apollo era also may attend the closed meeting.

Sources close to some of the astronauts hinted that a public statement urging support for the president's new moon-Mars space plan might follow the meeting, but there has been no official confirmation of that prospect. On the evening of July 20, the actual 35th anniversary of the landing, NASA and aerospace industry will host a reception for the astronauts and their families at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

No public statement is expected at this event, which will also be closed to news media, UPI was told.

On July 20, 1969, astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin piloted the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle onto the moon's surface.

Collins remained in the command module in orbit and was not among the estimated 1 billion people who watched the landing on live television.

Hours later, Armstrong and Aldrin set foot upon the lunar surface at a location called the Sea of Tranquillity. Together, the two astronauts conducted a moonwalk that lasted two hours and 31 minutes and they remained on the moon for a total of 21.6 hours. Their activities included collecting rocks and soil samples, erecting an American flag and chatting by radio telephone with President Richard M. Nixon.

The Apollo flight marked the second space mission for each of the three astronauts, who never flew in space again. Five additional landings took place on the moon, from November 1969 through December 1972. A seventh landing attempt, the April 1970 flight of Apollo 13, failed when an explosion occurred aboard the spacecraft. NASA mounted a frantic attempt to compensate for the damage and all three astronauts survived and returned safely to Earth.

Three further missions -- Apollo 18, 19 and 20 -- were canceled by Nixon as a cost-saving move, and no other humans have visited the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

Since the 15th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 1984, the crew has met with the sitting American president or marked the occasion every five years with a public event of some kind. The last such meeting, in July 1999, feted the astronauts at a breakfast reception and speech by Vice President Al Gore. In 1994, President Bill Clinton had hosted the reception. Neither Clinton nor Gore announced any new space goals for NASA during these events.

During the 20th anniversary ceremonies on July 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush delivered a speech on the front steps of the National Air and Space Museum. With the Apollo 11 and many other former and current astronauts present, Bush proposed a plan to complete what was then called Space Station Freedom -- now the International Space Station -- and to send astronauts back to the moon and Mars. That evening, at a barbecue reception on the lawn of the White House, Bush spoke again of his dreams of sending future astronauts to Mars by 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

The first President Bush's space goals were short-lived, however.

A study conducted by NASA to evaluate the 1989 Bush proposals suggested that new space vehicles, heavy lift launchers and other hardware would be required to fulfill the plan. The study did not indicate a total cost for the project, but many analysts claimed it would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars -- a figure that never was confirmed. Congress refused to appropriate funds for the project, which was quietly abandoned within two years.

The proposal, called the Space Exploration Initiative or SEI, also lacked widespread support within the executive departments of the first Bush administration, which proved to be yet another obstacle to its success.

The current President Bush announced a wide-ranging series of manned space goals in a speech delivered at NASA headquarters on Jan. 14. With former Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Eugene Cernan and John Young in attendance, Bush outlined a new space policy for NASA that included development of a lunar and Mars spacecraft called the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, and a timetable of a return to the moon by 2020.

Bush approved a request for a $866 million increase to NASA's 2005 budget, but the proposal has been languishing in Congress. Since Bush's January announcement, he has not mentioned the proposal again in public.

The subcommittee chairs of the House and Senate space committees, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., have endorsed the plan, but the full committee chairs, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been cool to the plan.

Most members of the Republican caucus in both the House and Senate have not shown much enthusiasm for the plan, and Democrats generally have been critical. Only Reps. Tom Delay, R-Texas, the House Majority Leader, and Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., have been strongly supportive in public. The Johnson Space Center is in Delay's district and the Kennedy Space Center is in Weldon's.


Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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