Andy Thomas, Australia's most accomplished astronaut, who is the country from the US to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has expressed severe concerns about the new international space race.
Dr Thomas, the first Australian to walk in space and who lived on the Mir space station for five months, says politics is driving the US to have men back on the moon by 2024, which risks a repeat of past spectacular tragedies.
Speaking shortly after arriving in Adelaide, where at university he studied mechanical engineering, Dr Thomas said he did not believe the deadline was achievable.
"The very big risk that I see NASA is facing is that it is under incredible pressure from the administration, the White House, to bring the human return to the moon way earlier than perhaps the engineering should demand," he said.
"The 2024 date is driven by politics, not by the engineering and that's a very dangerous thing to do because you can't change engineering to suit politics. You can change politics to suit engineering.
"We run the risk of killing further astronauts if we have unrealistic schedule pressure".
He said accelerating schedules to suit a political agenda had in the past caused serious problems, serious accidents. "In 1967 there was a fire that killed three astronauts and that was because of incredible schedule pressure to get to the moon before the end of the decade.
"In 1986, seven crew persons died on Challenger, again because of incredible schedule pressure that was placed on the agency [NASA]. The same thing happened in 2003 with Columbia, pressure from the administration to keep flying."
US Vice-President Mike Pence in March this year said if NASA couldn't put astronauts on the moon by 2024, "we need to change the organisation, not the mission".
Pence, chairing a meeting of the administration's National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, declared, "We're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s. It's time to redouble our effort. It can happen, but it will not happen unless we increase the pace."
He was speaking two months after a Chinese spacecraft in January made the first landing on the far side of the moon, sending back images of a crater in the latest achievement for the country's growing space program.
Asked if US President Donald Trump was ultimately to blame for the pressures being put on NASA, Dr Thomas added: "I think the White House is to blame. I would put it [with] the administration. I don't know how interested Trump actually is in space but he's clearly in charge of the administration so he has responsibility."
Dr Thomas was ready to give recognition to China's moon landing and keeping the Yutu-2 rover vehicle "alive" for two lunar days, describing it as a "stunning achievement".
"So they're [China] not to be underestimated but there's not a lot of transparency or visibility into what their long-term plans are," he said.
"It is very clear that they see human space flight as a symbol of national prestige on the international stage and that they are willing to pursue it for that prestige. I think the biggest threat from China is the economic threat rather than the militarisation of space."
Dr Thomas said he believed Australia could have done more sooner with its own development and launching of satellites. Australia got off to a good start as one of the first countries to launch a satellite from its own territory, the Woomera Test Range in 1965.
"I would like to have seen the industrial base develop. I think it's kind of unfortunate," he said. "But it was not, so it placed Australia in a dependency position.
"It meant for satellite information Australia for a long time has been totally dependent on the assets of other countries and the difficulty with that is that, in times of national stress or even conflict, you have no assurance that your partners will be able to provide you the satellite information you need. You must be able to control your own assets."
On this day 50 years ago the Herald's front page reported clear skies for the moon launch with the astronauts willing and ready. "All systems - and portents - are "go" for this greatest of space adventures".
Dr Thomas said that, in May 1996, when he was preparing for his first launch, he was also willing and ready.
"I was very keen. It was the culmination of many years of dreaming, many years of hard work and training and it was all coming to fruition so I was very excited to be getting on with it finally.
"Particularly since, you know, the chances of me becoming an astronaut were improbably small. It was my dream job, but what were the odds? The odds were definitely against me but there I was lying on the launch pad about to go."
So could his achievement be emulated by another young Australian?
"I don't see any reason why not," he said. "There's been two major paradigm shifts in the space business over the last few years that make that a very real possibility. One is the final decision, long overdue in my opinion, for Australia to have a space agency and the other thing is [that] space flight is a commercial endeavour so that means that there will be fight opportunities for non-NASA astronauts."
Dr Thomas' wife Shannon Walker is also an astronaut, who is expecting to fly again.
- Andy Thomas will speak in Canberra at the Australian National University on Friday, July 19 as part of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Tickets available here.