Both Armstrong and Cernan said they didn't believe it was feasible for private space companies to put an astronaut into orbit safely until at least the end of the decade. However, allowing a private company to use the existing Space Transportation System, more commonly known as the shuttle program, was not only feasible, it made perfect sense.
There are three remaining flight-worthy shuttles currently be made ready to sit in museums around the country. In the meantime NASA is unable to launch equipment, astronauts or supplies to the International Space Station. They are completely at the mercy of the Russian Soyuz rocket system which is currently sitting idle following a series of failures to put the rocket in orbit.
The idea of returning the shuttles to service does make sense, but then again, they never should have been moth-balled in the first place so it seems unlikely Congress is going to change its mind now. Perhaps words from men who have been where no other men have gone before (and seem unlikely to go again for decades) will add weight to the argument that NASA absolutely-positively needs a spacecraft.
The shuttle program ended this past July after 30 years of operation. The three remaining space-flown orbiters — Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery — are now retired and being readied for display as museum showpieces.
But it might not be too late to press the shuttles back into action, said Armstrong, who was the first person ever to walk on the moon during NASA's historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in July 1969. [ Lunar Legacy: 45 Apollo Moon Mission Photos ]
"Proposals exist for continuing to fly the space shuttle under commercial contract," Armstrong wrote in testimony for today's hearing, which discussed NASA's human spaceflight operations. "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 2015 or so, and it's 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," he said.
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