I grew up in the space program, as the Admiral Emeritus worked for one of its main contractors (North American Aviation/Rockwell) from before my birth to the late 1980s, when he finally retired as a quality control engineer in the Space Shuttle program.  The names Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, and Eugene Cernan loomed large in that era as men who risked everything to push America to victory in the space race.  When they speak with a united voice about the direction of the space program today, their words carry the weight of many years of sacrifice and honor.

Unfortunately, in this case, they may not be correct — and they’re not quite united, either.  Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, blasted Barack Obama’s decision to cut the Constellation program and focus on a “flexible” strategy for future space flights:

The first man to walk on the moon blasted President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s back-to-the-moon program on Tuesday, saying that the move is “devastating” to America’s space effort.

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong’s open letter was also signed by Apollo 17commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon; and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, who is marking the 40th anniversary of his famous lunar non-landing this week. …

The most controversial part of the president’s policy is the cancellation of the Constellation program, which was aimed at developing a new generation of Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft to send astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond. …

Canceling Constellation could lead to thousands of layoffs at some of America’s biggest aerospace contractors, including Lockheed Martin, the Boeing Co. and ATK. Such job losses are among the factors behind congressional opposition to the cancellation. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts emphasize the bigger implications, however, and say in their letter that the decision would put the nation on a “long downhill slide to mediocrity.”

The letter notes that the U.S. space effort will be dependent for years to come on the Russians for transport to the International Space Station, at a cost of more than $50 million per seat.

Meanwhile, Buzz Aldrin — the man who followed Armstrong onto the Moon in that historic mission almost 41 years ago — says his colleagues have it wrong:

On the other side of the debate, the most outspoken Apollo-era advocate of NASA’s new policy is the man who was Armstrong’s co-pilot for the first moon landing: Buzz Aldrin.

“Many said the president’s decision was misguided, short-sighted and disappointing,” Aldrin wrote in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal. “Having the experience of walking on the moon’s surface on the Apollo 11 mission, I think he made the right call. If we follow the president’s plan, our next destination in space, Mars, will be within our reach.”

The decision looks bad politically, especially with the job losses at the contractors looming large in a moribund economy.  Those are manufacturing jobs, high-paying, that won’t get absorbed by other industries.  They could cause a flight to other countries among aerospace companies, which could have a tremendously negative impact on our national security, and which might get amplified if Obama becomes bearish on new military systems as well.

Furthermore, the direction of NASA is in danger of being hijacked.  NBC reports that Joe Biden more or less admitted that any boost to their budget will likely be tied to global-warming nonsense rather than space exploration and actual scientific accomplishment.  Instead of sending men to the Moon and Mars, we’ll be sending cash to the UN for the excuse to impose state control over energy production.

On the other hand, the “flexible” strategy moves, oddly for this administration, more towards a decentralized, private market approach to space flight.  Rather than dictate designs and systems through NASA, the new plan relies more on acting like a venture-capital plan for innovation by companies looking to create that kind of market.  Many have predicted the commercial expansion into space, but the costs and the uncertain demand make this extraordinarily difficult to accomplish.  Space travel and exploration are still almost exclusively government affairs, except for commercial satellite launches, which don’t hold any promise for significant exploration beyond Earth orbit.   Also, that $50 million per seat looks like a pretty good deal for a handful of trips to the Space Station, considering the billions it would cost to perform those launches ourselves, if one doesn’t add the calculation of the political cost of access to the Russian program.

For conservatives demanding fiscal discipline from a Leviathan government, the questions are even more difficult.  Should we demand spending in this area, when a private market approach could work?  Republicans at the SRLC demanded a return to small federal government focused on the basics outlined in the Constitution.  At least for now, would that include exploration in space, or should it instead insist on shedding programs like this to return to fiscal sanity?

At this stage, the private-market approach seems unrealistic, but the days of big government programs should have been over a long time ago.  Maybe it’s time to take the small-government, private-market path and see where that leads.