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Apollo 13 astronaut talks about the future of space exploration

March 17, 2018

If Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise were given a chance in the 1970s to make the nine-month trek to Mars, he most certainly would have declined.

In fact, he finds the idea of such a long mission boring, even though he realizes the mission is vital.

“It’s something we need to tackle,” said Haise, who was a military test pilot before becoming an astronaut in 1966. “That’s a long time to sit and … not have a good window of view for quite a while. It doesn’t fit my idea of what I like.”

Haise, 84, spoke to the Houston Chronicle prior to his presentation Friday at Space Center Houston, where he discussed life as an astronaut in the 1960s and 1970s.

Haise was just 36 when his chance to leave a footprint on the moon was thwarted. Two days into the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded. When the warning lights went off that day, Haise got a sick feeling in his stomach, he told a crowd of 500 at the Space Center.

After all that training, he realized he might miss his change to land on the moon.

There was “a lot of confusion” as it happened, he said. “At first, Mission Control thought it was an instrumentation problem.”

They soon realized it was a serious problem that would force the mission to be aborted.

Haise never got another shot at stepping on the lunar surface. But nearly 50 years later, Haise hopes astronauts soon return to the moon.

He noted theTrump administration’s push to return to the moon as a stepping-stone for a trip to Mars. President Donald Trump has proposed a $19.9 billion budget for NASA in the coming year, with $10.5 billion allocated for human exploration. The budget needs approval from Congress.

“We should go back,” Haise said. “We barely touched the moon.”

A return trip would allow NASA to study difference aspects of the moon, such as whether it houses usable water or other resources.

During the initial trips, astronauts focused on learning about cosmology and history of the moon. To train for this, Haise said he and his fellow astronauts studied geology extensively.

“Geology gives you a perspective of time that you never think about, like how space gives you a sense of distance and scale of things,” he said, noting that he had not studied the subject in high school or college.

Learning about potential resources likely would entice commercial companies to participate in future human exploration endeavors - and that involvement comes money, Haise said.

“The real answer to whether (going back to the moon) is reality or not is funding,” he said.

He’s been discouraged, he told the crowd, that support for return trips to the moon and a first trip to Mars, has never returned to the level of the 1960s.

“I’d hoped we would have the right support like we had then that would allow (exploration) to be financed … with a fairly rigid timeline,” he said. “We haven’t had that since.”

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or twitter.com/alexdstuckey.