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US President Barack Obama. Reuters

A former Nasa astronaut has said President Obama is "not interested" in space exploration and that the United States' dependence on Russia for technology is "humiliating".

Walt Cunningham, who was the Lunar Module pilot on the Apollo 7 mission, made the comments to Spanish newspaper El Mundo. He was visiting Tenerife for the astronomy-based Starmus International Festival.

Speaking about Nasa's current projects, he said: "Mars should be our main goal, but unfortunately the sad reality is that we are not doing enough to achieve it. Since the early 70s we said that after the moon, we would travel to Mars. We could have gotten there a long time ago. But over time, NASA has been becoming increasingly bureaucratic... and unable to take risks."

He said he does not think Nasa will reach Mars by 2030, as it is currently aiming for, adding that the current mission to land on an asteroid is pointless. The space agency is currently planning to land on an asteroid by the 2020s as a stepping stone to Mars.

"The idea of traveling to an asteroid seems like a stupid waste of time. The worst part is that Obama is not the least bit interested in space," said Cunningham.

Cunningham also said that while he disagrees with Nasa's plan of a one-way ticket to Mars, he believes we must accept that some astronauts will not return safely from a mission of this kind: "To get to Mars [we must] be willing to take the risk of losing lives to get there."

walt cunningham
Cunningham said the US is falling behind other nations in terms of space technology Getty Images

Russia vs USA

The astronaut told the newspaper that in the mid-60s, Nasa was far ahead of Russia in terms of space technology, but this is now waning: "We have lost the drive and motivation we had in the past to leverage our technological capabilities, to the point that we now depend on Russia to climb up there. It's humiliating because the Russians know perfectly well what we are capable of."

Cunningham said at present, China has the "best attitude" in terms of space exploration: "They are taking their time to keep improving their skills and launch increasingly complex missions. The Chinese are very smart and are making progress faster than anyone right now.

"If the US wants to regain its leadership we must make a firm commitment such as China is doing right now. Otherwise, we will be left behind. Even the Russians, with their persistence, can overwhelm us."

Alien life

According to Cunningham, 82, it is "inconceivable to think there isn't life elsewhere in the Universe," but finding it is another issue. He said he does not believe we will ever have direct contact with aliens: "Perhaps, at best, grasp a signal from another civilization. But if we consider that Alpha Centauri, the nearest star is 4.3 light years away, it seems very unlikely."

Discussing UFOs, he added: "All stories circulating around about flying saucers are junk."