Budget cuts and changing priorities mean that the first manned moon shot may also have been one of the last.
The Apollo 11 mission to the moon inspired a generation of American children to study science and engineering with the hope of becoming an astronaut or engaging in some other hi-tech profession, President Obama said Monday in remarks commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first manned voyage to the lunar surface.
His words, however, come as budget cuts and questions about the space program's economic value threaten to derail NASA's future plans.
"As a consequence of the extraordinary work of NASA generally, that you inspired an entire generation of scientists and engineers that ended up really sparking the innovation, the drive, the entrepreneurship, the creativity back here on Earth," said Obama, in a meeting with Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins at the White House.
"I think it's very important to constantly remember that NASA was not only about feeding our curiosity, that sense of wonder, but also had extraordinary practical applications," said the President.
Obama added that the U.S. needs the same sort of inspiration now if it's to meet the challenges of global competition in the 21st century. "One of the things I've committed to as President is making sure that math and science are cool again, and that we once again keep the goal by 2020 of having the highest college graduation rates of any country on Earth, especially in the maths and science fields" Obama said.
The U.S. space program, however, is facing significant challenges that may limit its impact on future generations and technological advancement.
NASA is expected to phase out the space shuttle program starting next year. Plans call for the development of an Apollo-style rocket and capsule system, dubbed Ares and Orion, to replace the orbiter. Obama administration officials, however, have recently raised questions about the plan's cost and practicality—meaning the project could be placed on hold.
The Senate last week confirmed former astronaut Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden as NASA administrator.
Obama said Bolden, along with deputy administrator Lori Garver, will work to ensure that NASA lives up to the Apollo 11 legacy—but the President offered no specifics about the future of manned space travel. Instead, he looked to the past.
"We are confident that they are going to be doing everything that they can in the next decade to come to continue the inspirational mission of NASA," Obama said. "But I think it's fair to say that the touchstone for excellence in exploration and discovery is always going to be represented by the men of Apollo 11," Obama said.
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