When it comes to America’s space program, 83-year-old Rusty Schweickart said Wednesday, “don’t ask a bunch of old farts how the new guys are doing.”
On the 50th anniversary of his Apollo 9 splashdown, Schweickart was making light of how his commander, Jim McDivitt, 89, exhaustively recalled fetching a quick $50 million for a NASA project — a lot of money in the 1960s.
But the “new guys” came in for sometimes rough criticism at a San Diego Air & Space Museum celebration witnessed by nearly 500 well-dressed patrons, including space legend Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.
Gene Kranz, flight director of the groundbreaking Apollo 9 mission and seven others, said the United States has to define a well-funded goal in space that lasts for at least a generation — through several presidential administrations.
“And to do that, we have to find leadership,” said the 85-year-old Kranz, who was portrayed by Ed Harris in the 1995 film “Apollo 13” (scripted to say: “Failure is not an option.”)
“We need some leader capable of standing up and saying: ‘This is what we must do. … and why it must be done.’ And I don’t see that happening,” said Kranz, still sporting his flattop hair style. (But not wearing his trademark vest.)
David Scott, 86, the Apollo 9 command module pilot in that earth-orbital mission, told Times of San Diego: “Unfortunately today, scientists get the chuck. … The country is at a standstill.”
And Gerry Griffin, the flight director who joined Kranz and the Apollo 9 crew on stage, said U.S. space efforts, politically, “are dead in the water.”
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“The problem is NASA has to have some stability,” he said amid questions from museum CEO James Kidrick. “We ought to be about 1 percent of the federal budget, and we’re less than a half percent now.”
In the 1960s, NASA accounted for as much as 4.4 percent of the federal budget. It was 2.3 percent in 1969, the year of four Apollo missions and two moon landings.
On Monday, President Trump sent Congress a proposal to cut NASA’s budget by $481 million, or 2.2 percent.
Fortunately, private companies like SpaceX are picking up the slack, especially in low earth orbit.
Let commercial operations take care of “hauling,” Griffin said, and give NASA a chance “to really do what it does best — and that’s the exploration.”
That was the dominant theme Wednesday night, when guests peered into “Gumdrop,” the first spacecraft to be named by its crew. The Apollo 9 command module — the museum’s most prized artifact — went on display in July 2004, basically on permanent loan from the National Air & Space Museum in Washington.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer spoke. So did county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher — who told of his third-grade dream of becoming an astronaut, even leading to calls to NASA, which advised him to study hard and go to the Naval Academy to become a pilot.
But Fletcher discovered he had poor eyesight and jettisoned that goal.
In a 2 1/2-hour program that ended close to 10 p.m., diners were treated to ethereal music and a succession of short Apollo 9 videos between occasional questions from moderator Mark Larson of KUSI-TV and KFMB radio, chairman of the museum board of directors.
“You’re among greatness here tonight,” Larson said, later adding that astronauts like these were “the rock stars” of that era.
But the high-ceilinged central pavilion was rocked every few minutes by the WHOOSH of a simulated jet flyover — produced by a sound system that drowned out the Apollo 9 crew mates.
The healthy looking astronauts — none wearing glasses — soldiered on, sharing jokes and secrets from the 10-day mission that proved a lunar lander could dock with a command module. The mission also tested emergency “life raft” measures that helped save Apollo 13.
The trio recalled how they brought cassette tapes of music into space — for playing on their new-fangled Sony Walkmans. But while McDivitt and Scott listened to country, Schweickart couldn’t hear his tape of classical music until nearly the last day.
He had played it so often in training that his mates “got really sick of it” and hid it from Schweickart.
But another sickness threatened a key mission.
Schweickart told how he he vomited twice the day before his spacewalk — a test of the portable life support system that Neil Armstrong and Aldrin would wear on the moon. If it happened in space, “You barf, you die.”
“I mean it was a big deal,” he said of the crucial EVA. “If we didn’t get that done … we weren’t going to get to the moon and back by the end of the decade.”
Approaching the pressurization stage, McDivitt asked Schweickart: “How are you feeling?”
Fifteen minutes before exiting the craft, Schweickart said: “Jim and I looked at each other. ‘So what do you think?’ I said: ‘I think it’s a go.’”
McDivitt made the life-or-death “command decision” to let the spacewalk proceed. (It went fine.)
Fifty years after the fact, Schweickart turned to McDivitt. “I’ve never thanked you, Jim. I’m going to thank you right now.”