Obama Finally Explains His Plan for Human Spaceflight

President Obama spoke yesterday at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Florida, to explain his vision for space and to defend his proposed FY 2011 budget. This breaks a long-held silence that has frustrated space enthusiasts and professionals alike since the budget was announced in February.

Addressing an audience at the Operations and Checkout Building at KSC, Obama called for finalizing plans for a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, which would then be built to ship astronauts beyond Earth orbit. He also called for landing humans on an asteroid as a step along the way to developing technologies to orbit and land on Mars. By the mid-2030s, he said, humans would orbit Mars and return safely to Earth.

Those words didn’t have quite the same ring as “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” by the end of this decade, but as the president pointed out, today’s challenges are different from those of the 1960s. Mars is harder than the moon. It will take more time. But when humans do land on the red planet, Obama said, “I expect to be around to see it.”

The president faces criticism for his proposed budget, which would increase NASA’s cash flow by about $6 billion but sets most of that amount aside for commercial space transportation projects, instead of building new space taxis in-house. Congress and NASA employees are also concerned that cutting the Constellation program, which was being designed to send humans back to the moon, will put thousands of people out of work, particularly in states like Texas and Florida.

But Obama countered by saying that his plan would add 2500 more jobs along the space coast than the Constellation program would have, and that it would generate over 10 000 jobs nationwide in the next few years. He also proposed a $40 million initiative for “regional growth and development” in the Florida area, to reach his desk by 15 August. The plan would help prepare a skilled work force for “new opportunities in the space industry and beyond.”

On an odder note, Obama said that the Orion capsule, which would have served as the lunar lander in the Constellation program, will remain on the table as the basis for a rescue capsule to be sent to the International Space Station (ISS), where it would be ready to carry astronauts back to Earth in case of an emergency. Of course, that will also keep Orion’s contractor Lockheed-Martin happy, and it will employ a few hundred more NASA people.

Some detractors of the Obama plan worry that relying on commercial companies to build space transportation vehicles after the space shuttle’s tour of duty ends this year would leave US astronauts at the mercy of Russia’s space agency, which operates the Soyuz space capsule, for an extended period of time.

However, in remarks after the president’s speech, Norman Augustine, who led the independent panel on human spaceflight that came up with many of the goals Obama’s plan endorses, nipped that worry in the bud: do we really have less faith in our commercial sector than in the Russians, he asked? Because it would have taken several more years for Constellation to get off the ground than it will for commercial transportation, he argued, the old plan would have left America dependent on Russia for even longer.

The president's proposed plan, Augustine said, if adequately funded and with timely decisions made, “does give us a way to have a human spaceflight program worthy of a great nation, and to transform us from transportation to exploration.”

Marty Hauser, a vice president of the Space Foundation, which this week hosted the 26th annual National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, says the remarks were mostly well received by space professionals in government and private industry, who watched the speech via live streaming at the conference and then discussed it in a panel afterwards. "The whole space community has been waiting to see what [the budget] will mean, beyond just canceling Constellation," Hauser says. "Now there's some flesh on the bones."

Hauser adds that the president’s speech gave attendees at the symposium the sense that "there is some thought going into planning” after all. "It's nice to have a better idea of where we're headed, and the rationale behind it," he says.

So now that Obama has put his mouth where his money is, the space industry—and the public—will be watching closely to see if his plan actually comes to fruition, paving the way for spaceflight's next small steps and giant leaps. I, for one, hope it does.

Photos courtesy of NASA.

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