Kennedy Space Center, FL - President Obama told an invitation-only audience at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) today that his plan for NASA will assure U.S. leadership in space is stronger in the 21st Century than it was in the last century. Saying that no one is more committed to NASA's human space flight program than he is, the President said humans will land on Mars and "I expect to be around to see it."
The President made no retreat from his conviction that the future of human space flight - at least to and from low Earth orbit - should be in the hands of the private sector. Instead, during his short visit, he found time to pop over to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (adjacent to KSC) to visit SpaceX's Falcon 9 sitting on its launch pad.
Obama reviewed the basics of his plan, which are essentially the same as what was announced in the FY2011 budget request. As presaged in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy press release on Tuesday, however, there is some fine tuning that may ameliorate some of his critics. While Orion is not really continued, the President said that NASA will develop a space station rescue craft using the technology developed in the Orion program.
The President's plan has been heavily criticized for not having a destination or timetable. The President offered some timelines today, but they are not in the near term. He said "early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit" and new spacecraft for human missions beyond the Moon would be ready by 2025. As for a destination, he explicitly identified a human mission to an asteroid as the next step. Evoking President John F. Kennedy's famous 1961 speech calling on the nation to send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth within a decade, President Obama said that "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it." He eschewed the Moon, saying "We've been there before.... There's a lot more of space to explore."
As expected, he also said that a decision would be made by 2015 on what new heavy lift launch vehicle to develop, which he said was two years earlier than under the previous plan.
Noting that Rep. Suzanne Kosmas keeps reminding him that he promised to help with jobs in the transition from Shuttle to Constellation, he announced that he is proposing a $40 million initiative to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation along Florida's Space Coast. The plan is due by August 15. Separately he said that his proposal would add 2,500 more jobs in the next two years in the area than the previous plan, and that 10,000 jobs could be created nationwide over the next few years as companies compete to be part of the "new space transportation industry."
The speech does little to change the nature of the program revealed in February, but indicates that the White House is willing to respond to some of the criticism it has encountered. For those who firmly believe that new spacecraft and launch vehicles should be developed under the traditional government-private sector relationship that has defined the space program for the past 50 years, the speech probably did little to ease their concerns. Nor would those whose worry mostly about jobs be assuaged, since there were few details about how new jobs would be created. But for anyone who wanted to know where the human space flight program is headed and on what schedule, the President offered some answers today and his personal enthusiasm for the human space flight program. The ball is back in Congress' court to decide whether to embrace the President's plan for the future, try to keep the Constellation program in spite of the significant budget implications of that choice, or come up with something else.
Editor's note: The President said that before he went on stage someone told him that the space program was more than Tang and he replied that he really likes Tang. Regrettably that comment may reinforce the urban myth that Tang came out of the space program. It did not. Nor did Velcro or Teflon even though those are the three products that most people seem to think are space program spin-offs.
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