Barely a month shy of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program putting the first human on the Moon, Apollo astronauts Col. Walt Cunningham, USMC-Ret. (Apollo 7); Brig. Gen. Charlie Duke, USAF-Ret. (Apollo 16); and Col. Al Worden, USAF-Ret. (Apollo 15) took the stage at the U.S. Pavilion at the Paris Air Show to answer questions about their missions and thoughts on the current state of aeronautics and space exploration.
Asked about what they felt while waiting to lift off, all agreed the primary concern was to “Please, keep the clock [countdown] going,” as a scrubbed launch would mean a delay of at least a month, during which “a thousand things could happen” that could have derailed their lunar ambitions, said Duke.
All support a planned U.S. return mission to the Moon and the establishment of a scientific station, “similar to what we have in Antarctica,” Duke said. “We had no problem working on the Moon,” but longer sojourns and habitation would present much greater challenges he said, adding that “Moon dust is really a problem.”
But none of the pioneers are sanguine about the prospects for a return within the next five years. “I do not see an increasing interest to pay what it’s going to cost,” said Worden. In today’s risk-averse environment, “Everybody’s not supposed to stick their necks out,” which he feels imperils the possibility of future endeavors like Apollo.
Said Cunningham, “My plea is everybody say, ‘Congress, you need to provide the funding to NASA.'”
As for accomplishments in air and space since, Worden said he was most impressed by “watching a Space X launch, and seven minutes later watching the two Falcon Heavy boosters land at the same time on separate launch pads.”
Looking ahead to the possibility of a mission to Mars, “We may or not want to go eventually,” said Cunningham, “but the cost is going to be much more than some people are suggesting.” On the prospects of long-term habitation, he said, “I believe, a colony on another planet—it’s not going to happen.”
Worden, referring to the astronauts’ respective backgrounds as U.S. Air Force and Naval aviators, noted he had never stepped foot on the Moon, instead flying the command module that orbited its surface. “What did they do?” he asked of his Moon-walking colleagues. “They walked, they drove a jeep, they planted a flag. They became Army guys, while I was one of the real Air Force guys!”