Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin says U.S. taking giant leap backward

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Forty-five years after man first landed on the moon, one of the men who was there is worried that the U.S. has become lost in space.

With the anniversary Sunday of Apollo 11’s giant leap for mankind, Buzz Aldrin sees a moribund American space program without a major task to conquer while a geopolitical rival is going full steam ahead, reminding him of the Soviet launch of the first man-made satellite in 1957. Only the U.S. isn’t reacting now as it did then.

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“We’re in the worst position we’ve ever been in,” he told The Washington Times. “We’re in worse competitive shape than after Sputnik.”

Mr. Aldrin knows a thing or two about space. He was part of NASA’s space exploration for many years, flying first in the Gemini 12 mission, and then as part of Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, when he became the second man to walk on the moon. A photo of Mr. Aldrin, taken on the moon’s surface by Armstrong, has become one of the most iconic images of human history.

But the U.S. could soon lose its position at the forefront of space exploration and be surpassed by nations such as China, Mr. Aldrin warned.

Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (left), Michael Collins (center) and Neil Armstrong greet a cheering crowd in India on Oct. 26, 1969, in the midst of a 22-nation tour to celebrate their achievement of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. (Associated Press)

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Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (left), Michael Collins (center) and Neil ... more >

In 2010, because of budget constraints and concerns that the rockets in development weren’t adequate, President Obama canceled the Constellation program, which was viewed as the successor to the space shuttle and which would have put mankind on the path to visiting Mars.

Now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is trying to figure out the next steps, using the last remaining piece of the canceled program: the command module Orion, which was to house the astronauts. But Mr. Aldrin said there are still concerns that the new spacecraft may be too heavy and too expensive, or would launch too infrequently.

The current plan is to use a robot to capture a small asteroid and bring it into the moon’s orbit, where the first astronauts launched on Orion could study it.

PHOTOS: Lunar landing

In the meantime, the International Space Station is slated for decommissioning in 2024, a year after China’s planned space station is set to be completed.

NASA plans eventually to land people back on the moon.

“Where’s our space program now?” Mr. Aldrin said. “The president’s telling us we’re going to do in 10 or 15 years the same thing we did back in ‘69, ‘70.

“That’s not going to be very popular to the American people,” he said.

Instead, he said, the U.S. must set its sights on a celestial body beyond the moon: Mars.

Mr. Aldrin said he and fellow moonwalker Armstrong often would discuss what the next step should be.

“He wanted to go back to the moon, and I wanted to go to Mars,” Mr. Aldrin said. “But I don’t want to go to Mars by ignoring the moon.”

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