The U.S. is in danger of losing its primacy in space exploration, and the economy stands to suffer as a result, two legendary moonwalkers told the House Science Committee Sept. 22.

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, the first and last men, respectively, to walk on the Moon, told the panel that retiring the space shuttle without an alternative U.S. vehicle will make it harder to interest young students in the difficult math and science courses necessary to sustain the U.S. economy in the competitive global environment.

“The reality that there is no requirement for a NASA spacecraft commander for the foreseeable future is obvious and painful to all who have justifiably taken great pride in NASA’s wondrous spaceflight achievements of the past half-century,” Armstrong said.

Cernan, who said in his view the Obama administration wants to “dismantle” the U.S. space program, made a distinction between the commercial companies that built the vehicles he flew to the Moon and the startup companies like Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) competing to offer commercial crew flights to the International Space Station under the administration’s new space policy.

Citing the administration’s decision “to subsidize commercial space to, and I quote, ‘whatever extent it might take to make it successful,’ unquote,” Cernan termed the new approach “a program that appeared to have little or no transparency or NASA insight or oversight into existing problems or those that past experience has told us will crop up in the future.

“I stand behind my assertion that 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,” Cernan said.

The two Apollo astronauts reprised testimony they gave to the Senate Commerce Committee in May 2010, before Congress passed the three-year NASA reauthorization bill that mandated a heavy-lift Space Launch System as a backup to the commercial cargo and crew providers. Testifying with them was former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who suggested the lengthy delay in selecting a design for the Space Launch System amounted to an attempt to kill the congressionally mandated heavy-lift rocket.

Under questioning from Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), Griffin said he would not have gotten into the situation that current administrator Charles Bolden faced when the Senate commerce panel subpoenaed agency documents as part of an investigation into the delay.

“If the chief executive doesn’t want to do the project, then logically speaking they will slow roll it because every two years there is an election and there’s a chance to try again,” Griffin said. “If you start the project, it becomes more difficult to cancel it.”