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Obama looks to deeper space as NASA's mission

A refocused plan taps the private industry to build rockets for a possible Mars mission.

April 16, 2010|By Ralph Vartabedian and W.J. Hennigan

At the launch center where the U.S. had dominated space travel over the last half-century, President Obama on Thursday laid out a new vision for the nation's space ambitions, focusing on future deep-space missions rather than a return trip to the moon.

The proposal differs significantly from the austere agenda that Obama laid out in January when he terminated the moon program. Critics then attacked his decision as a historic withdrawal of U.S. ambitions in space travel just as China and other developing nations are gearing up to retrace U.S. steps on the moon.

Obama's latest blueprint includes a $3-billion research effort for a new heavy-lift rocket that could carry astronauts to asteroids, Mars or other possible deep-space destinations, as well as a new reliance on private companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.

"I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future," Obama said, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as he sought to reassure a conference of top NASA officials, lawmakers and scientists who were discussing an agenda for the U.S. space program.

"Space exploration is not a luxury, not an afterthought in America's brighter future," Obama said. "It is an essential part of that quest."

The new reliance on private space companies, coupled with a government program to develop a heavy-launch vehicle, could play to the strengths of the California aerospace industry. Indeed, after his speech, Obama toured a commercial launch center set up by Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.

But even with the expanded program, the U.S. will end human spaceflight for many years when the last space shuttle launches this year and the fleet is retired after three decades. Then, NASA will be dependent entirely on Russian launch vehicles to reach the International Space Station.

Under the George W. Bush administration, NASA was developing the Constellation family of rockets and an Orion space capsule that could carry a crew of astronauts to the moon or other destinations.

After spending $9 billion, the program was far behind schedule and over budget. An exhaustive examination of the program last year concluded that its ambitions vastly exceeded its future budget.

Obama decided to kill the Constellation earlier this year, and on Tuesday bluntly panned the whole idea of a moon return program. "We have been there before," he said.

The cancellation of the Constellation and the end of the space shuttle program have threatened thousands of jobs, prompting a political backlash in Florida and Texas, which benefit from human spaceflight programs.

Even though the initial Obama plan included a budget increase of $6 billion over the next five years, objections arose from former astronauts, politicians, the aerospace industry and the nation's legions of space cadets.

In response to that backlash, Obama revived the Orion space capsule program but downsized it to operate only as a crew-rescue vehicle for the space station. He announced a $40-million initiative for regional economic growth in Florida.

Obama asserted that the new reliance on private industry would create 10,000 jobs in a new space-transport industry, a prospect that won plaudits from entrepreneurs but drew skepticism from longtime NASA analysts.

"It creates huge opportunities for commercial space companies," said Elon Musk, the Internet tycoon who founded SpaceX. "It is the only path that has a chance of success. It has the potential of making space a mainstream thing. Absolutely, it is the opposite of a retrenchment. It is a revolution."

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said the new plan represented a sharp change in that it provided space enthusiasts with the hope of future deep-space missions and continued business opportunities for the mainstream aerospace industry.

But he said the elevated rhetoric promising the creation of a new private industry was embarking on a risky plan that would rely on inexperienced companies.

"There is a reason they call it rocket science," Pike said. "It is the most hazardous effort in human history."

Michael D. Griffin, former NASA chief and the architect of the Constellation program, panned Obama's speech, saying that the day for a commercial space industry hasn't arrived and that the president failed to lay out specific goals or deadlines for NASA.

"The president has made a decision to bet the future of human spaceflight, which has been the crown jewel of this country for 50 years, on a flailing industry," Griffin said. "The commercial business is in its infancy stages; there is no sign that they will be able to take on this responsibility so soon."

But other analysts had an optimistic view that the program could spur economic development.

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