Cape Canaveral, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — Fifty years after humanity's first lunar footsteps, the moon is back in NASA's court.
The White House wants U.S. astronauts on the moon pronto — by 2024, a scant five years from now. The moon will serve as a critical proving ground, the thinking goes, for the real prize of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
The billionaires' space club is on board. Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson favor moon before Mars. SpaceX's Elon Musk also is rooting for the moon, although his heart is on colonizing Mars.
But Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins prefers a beeline to Mars. Buzz Aldrin, too, is a longtime Mars backer. Back in 1994 on the 25th anniversary of his moon landing with Neil Armstrong, Aldrin questioned whether astronauts would be back on the moon by the 50th anniversary let alone on Mars, which was the short-lived goal at that time.
Fast-forward to the golden anniversary and NASA doesn't even have the capability to get astronauts into orbit around Earth. Russians are launching American astronauts to the International Space Station — for high prices — until capsules built by SpaceX and Boeing are ready. That likely won't happen until next year, almost a decade after NASA's space shuttle program ended.
"Fifty years ago ... we landed, explored, got back up again, rendezvoused, came back. That's 50 years of non-progress," Aldrin groused earlier this month during his anniversary bash near Los Angeles. "I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can't do better than that."
Collins, who circled the moon in the mother ship while Aldrin and Armstrong planted a U.S. flag and gathered rocks, acknowledges that returning to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars is "a valid plan."
"But I don't have to agree with it," Collins told The Associated Press. "I would take what I call the John F. Kennedy approach and I'd say if you want to go to Mars, you say you want to go to Mars and you go."
Even President Donald Trump — whose vice president is out there plugging moonshots — prefers talking up Mars. In an Oval Office meeting with Aldrin and Collins on the eve of the landing anniversary, Trump asked if it was possible to send astronauts to Mars without revisiting the moon. Collins replied yes.
"Who knows better than these people, right? They've been doing this stuff for a long time," the president said. He later instructed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to "listen to the other side."
If there's one thing NASA has learned in the half-century since Armstrong and Aldrin's moonwalk, it's that all the flip-flopping between the moon and Mars by presidential administrations has left astronauts no farther than the International Space Station since the sixth and final Apollo moon landing in 1972.
Despite a lack of human presence on the moon, robotic spacecraft are exploring the gray, dusty world. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the moon for the past 10 years. Earlier this year, China landed a craft on the far side of the moon. And on Monday, India plans to launch a mission to the moon's south pole.
Tackling an engineering problem like getting astronauts to the moon, according to Bezos, requires consistency. It also requires government involvement, given the expense and scale of the project, he noted, as well as multiple companies, not just his own Blue Origin which is intent on building lunar landers.
"What I really hope is that we stick with going back to the moon this time to stay because that is actually the fastest way to get to Mars," Bezos said at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library's space summit last month. "It's the illusion that you can skip a step. Skipping steps slow you down. It's seductive, but wrong."
Branson, whose company is working to take tourists on short flights into space, sees the moon as a more realistic destination for astronauts right now.
"Getting somebody onto Mars will be spectacular, almost as an awe-inspiring thing as the moon landing," Branson said at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. "But I think as far as putting time and energy and money into it, I think the moon."
As the 50th anniversary parties wind down — Apollo 11's wondrous eight-day voyage ended with a Pacific splashdown on July 24, 1969 — NASA keeps cranking up the lunar spotlight.
Project Artemis, as it's called after the twin sister of Greek mythology's Apollo, aims for a landing on the moon's south pole. The key, said Bridenstine, is sustainability. Hundreds of millions of tons of ice line the permanently shadowed craters at the bottom of the moon, a precious source of water for drinking, growing food and making rocket fuel.
"We will spend weeks and months, not days and hours on the lunar surface," Vice President Mike Pence promised during Saturday's moon landing celebration with Aldrin at Kennedy. "This time we're going to the moon to stay and to explore and develop new technologies."
Astronaut safety is paramount in getting to the moon. But speed and cost are close seconds. By moving up the target lunar landing date from 2028 to 2024, NASA hopes to retire as much political risk as possible by getting out of the gate fast.
"If it wasn't for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now. In fact, we would probably be on Mars right now," Bridenstine said last week.
The NASA chief estimates his agency will need $20 billion to $30 billion extra to achieve a 2024 moon landing, quite possibly less if private companies invest their own money "and I'm talking a lot of money."
As for technical risk, NASA needs new lunar landers and spacesuits, neither of which presently exist.
NASA's Space Launch System, or SLS, megarocket, meanwhile, has faced technical challenges and delays. Its debut flight around the moon — with an empty Orion capsule — is now probably off until 2021.
The first flight around the moon with a crew would follow in 2022 or 2023. In the meantime, a mini space station dubbed the Gateway — whose need is questioned even by some within NASA — would be built in lunar orbit. A pair of astronauts would descend from this orbiting Gateway to the lunar surface, ideally by the end of 2024. The Gateway eventually could serve as the departing point for Mars expeditions under the NASA plan.
NASA currently has 38 astronauts, 12 of whom are women.
The first woman on the moon — as well as the next man on the moon — will come from that pool of 38, according to Bridenstine.
Baikonur, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — A Russian space capsule with three astronauts aboard has docked with the International Space Station after a fast-track trip to the orbiting laboratory.
The Soyuz capsule docked at 22:48 GMT Saturday, just six hours and 20 minutes after blasting off from Russia's launch complex in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
The launch took place on the 50th anniversary of the day U.S. astronauts landed on the moon.
The capsule is carrying Andrew Morgan of the United States on his first spaceflight, Russian Alexander Skvortsov on his third mission to the space station and Italian Luca Parmitano.
They will join Russian Alexey Ovchinin and Americans Nick Hague and Christina Koch have been aboard since March.
The crew patch for the expedition echoes the one from Apollo 11's 1969 lunar mission.
Cape Canaveral, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — A moonstruck nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's "giant leap" by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at parties, races, ball games and concerts Saturday, toasting with Tang and gobbling MoonPies.
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Aldrin showed Vice President Mike Pence the launch pad where he flew to the moon in 1969. At the same time halfway around the world, an American and two other astronauts blasted into space on a Russian rocket. And in Armstrong's hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, nearly 2,000 runners competed in "Run to the Moon" races.
"Apollo 11 is the only event in the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century," the vice president said.
Wapakoneta 10K runner Robert Rocco, 54, a retired Air Force officer from Centerville, Ohio, called the moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin "perhaps the most historic event in my lifetime, maybe in anybody's lifetime."
At the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Gilda Warden sat on a bench and gazed in awe at the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, on display. "It's like entering the Sistine Chapel and seeing the ceiling. You want to just sit there and take it in," said Warden, 63, a psychiatric nurse from Tacoma, Washington.
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked from Columbia in lunar orbit and then descended in the lunar module Eagle to the Sea of Tranquility. The Eagle landed with just 17 seconds of fuel to spare. Six hours later, Armstrong was the first to step onto the lunar surface, proclaiming for the ages: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It was humanity's first footsteps on another world.
In a speech at Kennedy, Pence paid tribute to Armstrong, Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins — if they're not heroes, "then there are no heroes" — as well as the 400,000 Americans who worked tirelessly to get them to the moon.
Aldrin, 89, grabbed the right hand of Neil Armstrong's older son, Rick, at Pence's mention of heroes. He then stood and saluted, and received a standing ovation. Armstrong died in 2012. Collins, 88, did not attend the Florida ceremony. But Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt, the next-to-last man to walk on the moon in 1972, was there.
Pence reiterated the Trump administration's goal of sending American astronauts back to the moon within five years and eventually on to Mars. He said this next generation of astronauts will spend weeks and months on the lunar surface, not just days and hours like the 12 Apollo moonwalkers did. Alongside the stage was the newly completed Orion capsule that will fly to the moon and back, on a test flight without a crew, in another year or two.
NASA had other celebrations going on Saturday, most notably at Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to Mission Control; the U.S. Space and Rocket Center next door to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V moon rockets were born; and the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
And where better to celebrate than Apollo, Pennsylvania — located in Armstrong County not far from Moon Township and the town of Mars. The historical society revived the annual moon-landing celebration in honor of the big 50. All of the Apollo astronauts have long been honorary citizens of Apollo, the society's Alan Morgan said.
At New York's Yankee Stadium, former space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino threw out the ceremonial first pitch to former pitcher Jack Aker, who was on the mound when the July 20, 1969, baseball game was interrupted to announce that the Eagle had landed. Armstrong and Aldrin were "A1, No. 1, higher than major league," Aker recalled Saturday. "It's a mutual feeling," Massimino agreed.
Across the country in Seattle, Tim Turner was first in line Saturday to see Columbia, the mother ship piloted by Collins as Armstrong and Aldrin moonwalked.
"Good grief! It's still amazing, the No. 1 feat of the 20th century, if not all of modern history, that first time there," said Turner, 57, a computer programmer from Poulsbo, Washington.
As he waited to get in to see Columbia, Craig Smith, 58, a veterinarian from Tacoma, Washington, recalled thinking as a boy: "'Dang! Seriously? A dude on the moon?' I thought that was nifty."
Clocks all over counted down to the exact moment of the Eagle's landing on the moon — 4:17 p.m. EDT — and Armstrong's momentous step onto the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EDT. The powdered orange drink Tang was back in vogue for the toasts, along with marshmallow and chocolate MoonPies, including a 55-pound (25-kilogram), 45,000-calorie MoonPie at Kennedy's One Giant Leap bash.
About 100 visitors and staff at the American Space Museum in Titusville, across the Indian River from Kennedy, cheered and lifted plastic champagne glasses of Tang at the moment of touchdown.
"This is what we're here for, to share the American space experience," explained executive director Karan Conklin, who led the toast.
For the late night-crowd, "first step" concerts were on tap at the Kennedy Center in Washington, outside in the shadow of a replica Saturn V rocket in Huntsville, and other sweltering locales.
A real rocket lit up the night sky in Kazakhstan.
Blasting off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in 100-degree heat (38 degrees Celsius), American Andrew Morgan, Italian Luca Parmitano and Russian Alexander Skvortsov flew to the International Space Station. Only Skvortsov was alive at the time of Apollo 11. The three already living on the space station also were born long after the moon landings.
The crew deliberately modeled its mission patch after Apollo 11's: no astronaut names included to show the universal nature of space flight. Morgan explained in a NASA interview that Apollo 11, and now his flight, represents "an accomplishment of the world and not one single country."
New Delhi, Jul 18 (AP/UNB) — India's space agency said it will launch a spacecraft to the south pole of the moon on Monday after an aborted effort this week.
The Indian Space Research Organization said that the Chandrayaan-2 launch is now rescheduled at 2:43 p.m. on Monday. It said Thursday that an expert committee identified the root cause of the previous technical snag and all corrective actions were now implemented.
The mission was called off less than an hour before liftoff of the 640-ton, 14-story rocket launcher on Monday.
Chandrayaan, the Sanskrit word for "moon craft," is designed to make a soft landing on the lunar south pole and send a rover to explore water deposits that were confirmed by a previous orbiting Indian space mission.
The new launch schedule came sooner than expected.
Pallava Bagla, a science editor of the New Delhi Television news channel, had earlier said that launch windows would have to meet several technical criteria and it could take weeks or months for a new date.
Dr. K. Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, said that the around $140 million Chandrayaan-2 mission was the nation's most prestigious to date, in part because of the technical complexities of soft landing on the lunar surface — an event he described as "15 terrifying minutes."
If India did manage the soft landing, it would be only the fourth country to do so after the U.S., Russia and China.
New York, Jul 17 (AP/UNB) — Scientists say they nearly eliminated disease-carrying mosquitoes on two islands in China using a new technique.
But it's not clear whether this will be practical for larger areas or how expensive it'll be.
In the experiment, researchers targeted Asian tiger mosquitoes, invasive white-striped bugs that can spread dengue fever, Zika and other diseases. They used a novel technique that combined exposing the insects to radiation and infecting them with a bacterium.
For 18 weeks in 2016 and 2017, they released male mosquitoes onto two small islands near Guangzhou, China, a region plagued by dengue fever. The number of female mosquitoes that are responsible for disease spread plummeted by 83% to 94% each year, similar to other methods like spraying insecticides and using genetically modified mosquitoes.
Findings appear Wednesday in Nature.