SEATTLE — The United States desperately needs a way to get its astronauts to space and back and one solution could be taking NASA’s space shuttle fleet out of retirement, Apollo moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan told Congress Sept. 22.

Without an independent way to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit, the United States risks ceding its global leadership in space to Russia and China and others, the retired astronauts said. Developing that access should be a top priority for NASA and the country.

The recently retired shuttles provide one ready-made answer, according to Cernan. “Get the shuttle out of the garage,” Cernan told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “It’s in its prime of its life. How could we just put it away?” The shuttle program ended this past July after 30 years of operation. The three remaining space-flown orbiters are being readied for museum display.

But it might not be too late to press the shuttles back into action, said Armstrong. “Proposals exist for continuing to fly the space shuttle under commercial contract,” Armstrong testified . “Such proposals should be carefully evaluated prior to allowing them to be rendered ‘not flightworthy’ and their associated ground facilities to be destroyed.”

At the moment, NASA is relying on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry its astronauts to and from the international space station. But the space agency wants private spaceflight companies to take over this taxi role by around 2015 or so, and it is funding a handful of firms to develop their capabilities.

Cernan is dubious about this timeline, however. “It will be near the end of the decade before these new entrants will be able to place a human safely and cost-effectively in Earth orbit.”

Armstrong and Cernan testified alongside former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Maria Zuber. All stressed the importance of establishing safe, reliable access to low Earth orbit.

NASA should not leave this crucial task solely in the hands of private spaceflight firms, said Griffin, who led the space agency from 2005 to 2009

“Our nation should secure for itself, independent of commercial capability, the ability to again place our people in orbit and get them back.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), agreed.

“We need a viable backup system to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station should commercial crew launch companies not be able to deliver as hoped,” Hall said.



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