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The man behind NASA's first manned space flights wants astronauts back on the moon

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NASA has big plans for its future space travel, but one of the agency's earliest luminaries thinks it's on exactly the wrong track. The Houston Chronicle has interviewed Chris Kraft, NASA's first flight director and the man who oversaw its first human spaceflight, first human orbital flight, and first spacewalk, as well as the director of flight operations for the Apollo program. Now, his outlook for the agency is far from sunny. While NASA is working on plans for a manned Mars mission and an asteroid-capturing venture, Kraft thinks it should be focused on the one place it's said it's not sending humans back to: the moon.

"There's no practical reason for going to Mars."

"Congress is already saying what NASA is doing is wrong," Kraft says. "They're saying they don't like the asteroid mission. Most in Congress want to see NASA go back to the moon. So do nearly all of the scientific and technical organizations in the world." While he sees the value of a robotic Mars mission, he thinks the red planet is of secondary importance. "There's no practical reason for going to Mars. But there is a practical reason for going to the moon. And furthermore, if you really want to go somewhere, get out of this solar system."

Why would the moon be more valuable than breaking new ground on an asteroid or planet? Kraft thinks the moon has more practical uses, given its proximity to Earth. "There's no reason why you couldn't set up a factory on the moon to build solar panels. You could provide enough electrical power on the moon from solar cells, and eventually you could supply enough power for half the people on Earth with a solar cell farm on the moon." Space-based solar power has indeed been a long-running topic of study, but so far, it remains a firmly speculative venture.

While Kraft expands much more on his ideas in the interview above, he's generally skeptical of NASA's direction, including its work on a hyper-powerful Space Launch System and discounting of existing technology: "It's a tragedy. It really is." He also apparently isn't a fan of some of NASA's irreverent publicity campaigns, laying into the students behind the "Johnson Style" Psy parody above. "I said look, 'You just spent all of this effort to make a movie, how about spending all of that effort in making a space program go?'" he says. "'Give me your body and mind and work on those kinds of things. I thought the video was beautiful, but that's not why you're here.'"