Spaceflight Now

Obama vows commitment to manned space exploration
Posted: April 15, 2010

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President Barack Obama flew to the Kennedy Space Center Thursday to sell his new space policy, a radical change of course for NASA that would cancel the Constellation moon program and shift manned launches to private industry while NASA studies options for future deep space exploration.

Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now
For the first time, the president laid out a rough timeline for expeditions beyond low-Earth orbit and even the moon, calling for manned missions to nearby asteroids by the mid 2020s, flights to orbit Mars by the mid 2030s and manned landings shortly after.

"What I hope is that everybody will take a look at what we're planning," the president told a crowd of NASA officials and dignitaries. "Consider the details of what we've laid out and see the merits as I've described them.

"The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am," he said. "But we've got to do it in a smart way and we can't just keep on doing the same old things we've been doing and thinking that somehow that's going to get us where we want to go."

In a perfect storm of politics, a struggling economy and changing priorities, the president's new plan comes as NASA is struggling to complete the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle, resulting in more than 7,000 lost jobs this year at the Kennedy Space Center alone.

Because of earlier funding shortfalls, NASA already was facing a five- to six-year gap between the end of shuttle and the debut of the Ares I rocket being designed as part of the Constellation program. During that interim, the agency will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

With the proposed cancellation of Constellation and the Ares family of rockets, NASA will rely on private industry to build new rockets and capsules to fill the breach. No such "man-rated" rockets or spacecraft currently exist, but the administration believes the private sector can deliver new hardware in three to five years, first launching cargo capsules to the station and eventually astronauts.

As for deep space exploration, the administration plans to proceed with development of a new heavy lift rocket in 2015 that would take the place of the Constellation program's Ares V to boost future manned spacecraft out of Earth orbit to any one of a variety of deep space targets. Possible destinations include the moon, near-Earth asteroids, the moons of Mars and, eventually, Mars itself.

Obama also has approved a plan to modify the Constellation program's Orion crew capsule for use as an emergency escape vehicle for the International Space Station. He also promised to use the spacecraft as a test bed for future deep space missions.

"We will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy lift rocket, a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space," he said.

"In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models. We want to look at new designs, new materials, and new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it. That's at least two years earlier than previously planned, and that's conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over-budget."

"At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster for less cost, and to live and work in space for longer periods of time more safely."

The lack of firm targets and timetables was a major source of criticism from opponents to the president's plan, concerns he at least partially addressed Thursday. He insisted his approach will bear fruit in the years ahead by making the space program more affordable and sustainable over the long haul.

"By investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies, we have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities ... for future missions," Obama said. "And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones.

"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. 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!

"But I want to repeat, critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies," he said. "So I'm challenging NASA to break through these barriers. We'll give you the resources to break through these barriers, and I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity as you've always done."

Air Force One landed at the Kennedy Space Center's shuttle runway at 1:25 p.m. EDT, marking the first spaceport visit by a sitting president since Bill Clinton attended a shuttle launch in 1998. Joining Obama for the flight from Washington were Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, both Florida Democrats whose districts include the space center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.

Obama began his visit by touring the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. - SpaceX - rocket processing facility at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX, a relatively small company founded by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is building a new family of rockets as a commercial venture to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX hopes to become a player in the manned launch marketplace under the administration's new policy.

"Handing over Earth orbit transport to American commercial companies, overseen of course by NASA and the FAA, will free up the NASA resources necessary to develop interplanetary transport technologies," Musk said in a statement. "This is critically important if we are to reach Mars, the next giant leap in human exploration of the Universe."

While the new space policy will not replace lost shuttle jobs, the president said up to 2,500 new jobs will be created at the Kennedy Space Center above and beyond the 2,000 jobs that had been earmarked for Constellation.

The administration's proposed policy shift has generated widespread opposition in Congress and among current and former NASA contractors and civil servants.

"We are very concerned about America ceding its hard earned global leadership in space technology to other nations," read a letter signed by more than two dozen former astronauts and NASA managers, including legendary flight directors Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft and Glynn Lynney.

"We are stunned that, in a time of economic crisis, this move will force as many as 30,000 irreplaceable engineers and managers out of the space industry. We see our human exploration program, one of the most inspirational tools to promote science, technology, engineering and math to our young people, being reduced to mediocrity.

"NASA's human space program has inspired awe and wonder in all ages by pursuing the American tradition of exploring the unknown. We strongly urge you to drop this misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future."

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, the chief architect of the Constellation program, said he did not understand "how this plan, if that is the word, is an improvement."

"We had an integrated architecture," he said in an email. "They have hope. We had a 'public option' along with commercial alternatives, when and as they matured. They have a commercial option only, they are leaving the International Space Station a hostage to fortune, and they are spending money on technology in what might be termed a faith based initiative. We knew how to replace shuttle, get to the moon and go on to Mars. They don't."

An open letter signed by Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and the last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, was equally blunt.

"For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature," they wrote in a letter first posted by NBC News.

"While the President's plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years."

But White House officials released two statements of their own this week, one from Aldrin and the other by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a member of a panel of experts that proposed the plan approved by Obama.

"As an Apollo astronaut, I know the importance of always pushing new frontiers as we explore space," Aldrin wrote. "The truth is, that we have already been to the moon - some 40 years ago. A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century."

Ride said the president's plan "will enable NASA to return to its roots: developing innovative technologies aimed at enabling human exploration and tackling the truly challenging aspects of human spaceflight, enduring beyond Earth orbit, beyond the Earth-moon system and into the solar system."

Along with extending the life of the International Space Station, the new policy "articulates a strategy for human exploration that will excite and energize the next generation," Ride said. "It shifts our focus from the moon and frees us to chart a path for human exploration into the solar system. ... Because this strategy systematically develops the necessary technologies and experience, the path will lead to a human mission to Mars."

Nelson, who flew with Bolden on the shuttle Columbia in January 1986, said the commitment to building a heavy-lift rocket would help the plan in Congress.

"As with most presidential proposals, Congress will not just rubber stamp it," he said in a statement. "So we'll take what he's saying to our committee, and then we'll change some things."

In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, President Bush decided to complete the space station and retire the shuttle by 2010. At the same time, he directed NASA to begin development of new rockets, capsules and landers to carry astronauts back to the moon by the early 2020s. NASA came up with the Constellation program to implement those directives, spending some $9 billion over the past five years.

But funding shortfalls resulted in a projected five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of the Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule. To bridge the gap, NASA is paying the Russians some $50 million a seat to launch U.S. and partner astronauts to the space station aboard Soyuz rockets.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for Constellation but after the election, he set up a panel of outside experts to review NASA's plans and how much they might ultimately cost.

The panel concluded NASA could not afford to implement Constellation, or any other reasonable exploration program, without an additional $3 billion or so per year, primarily to make up for earlier budget reductions. And that did not take into account the cost of operating the International Space Station beyond 2015.

The group favored a shift to commercial launch services to carry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit while NASA focused on development of a new heavy-lift rocket system that would enable eventual flights to the moon, nearby asteroids or even the moons of Mars.

The Obama administration agreed with the idea of commercial launch services, but it did not explicitly embrace the "flexible path" approach to deep space exploration suggested by the panel, focusing instead on development of enabling technologies and somewhat vague long-range goals.

The new commitment to development of a heavy lifter with specific deep space objectives may defuse at least some of the outside criticism.

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