Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong at a "Legends of Aerospace" event in New York City last March.
CAPE CANAVERAL — President Obama's plans for NASA could be "devastating" to the U.S. space program and "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," three legendary astronauts said in a letter Tuesday.
Neil Armstrong, who rarely makes public comments, was the first human to set foot on the moon. Jim Lovell commanded the famous Apollo 13 flight, an aborted moon mission. And Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the lunar surface.
In statements e-mailed to the Associated Press and NBC, Armstrong and other astronauts took exception with Obama's plan to cancel NASA's return-to-the-moon program, dubbed Project Constellation.
Armstrong, in an e-mail to the AP, said he had "substantial reservations." More than two dozen Apollo-era veterans, including Lovell and Cernan, signed another letter Monday calling the plan a "misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future."
The statements came days before Obama is to visit Kennedy Space Center on Thursday to explain his vision for NASA.
Not all former astronauts have come out against the plan. Armstrong's crewmate Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, has endorsed Obama's plan, which includes investing $6 billion to develop commercial space-taxi services for astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station. Aldrin said the proposal will "allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth."
The plan would also extend the space station operations through 2020. It would cancel Project Constellation and the Ares rockets, which NASA has been developing for six years at a cost of more than $9 billion. Obama would retain the Constellation project's Orion capsule. The capsule, which was to go to the moon, will instead be sent unoccupied to the International Space Station to stand by as an emergency vehicle to return astronauts home.
Administration officials told the AP that NASA will speed up development of a rocket that would have the power to blast crew and cargo far from Earth, although no destination has been chosen. The rocket would be ready to launch several years earlier than under the moon plan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to not detract from the presidential announcement.
The former astronauts said, "It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus-billion investment in Constellation. … Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downward slide to mediocrity."
Contributing: Associated Press