Obama speech to outline his plans for returning U.S. to space

As President Obama is set to visit Florida to unveil his plans for NASA going forward, some of the most famous astronauts in the space program, including Neil Armstrong, have challenged his reported decision to idle the manned-space program.
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

President Obama will announce plans Thursday to revise and retain one element of the discarded Constellation rocket and space capsule system, commit to selecting a rocket capable of carrying astronauts to deep space within five years and allocate $40 million to put together a job-retraining program for Florida space workers who will lose their positions when the space shuttle is grounded next year.

Addressing workers, astronauts and lawmakers in a much-anticipated speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Obama will flesh out the new NASA architecture for returning Americans to space that was first proposed in his 2011 budget announcement. Those proposals -- to kill the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon and to jump-start development of a commercial space industry that could take its place -- met with substantial bipartisan opposition.

Obama's new proposals will be his answer to critics and his effort to make more specific the plan to re-create NASA's human exploration program, which the administration says will be cheaper than Constellation and get astronauts back into space more quickly. A senior White House official said the speech will show that Obama has a "bold and daring" vision for human space exploration.

One of the specifics will be to use some of the $3.8 billion spent in research and technology for the Orion space capsule to design and build a slimmed-down version of the spacecraft. A White House fact sheet outlining the plan said a crewless Orion would be launched "within the next few years" to the International Space Station on commercial rockets used by the military. It would be tethered there for use as a potential astronaut escape vehicle.

In addition, Obama will outline concrete plans to send astronauts to nearby asteroids, to the Earth's moon and the moons of Mars, and to Mars itself. The administration has proposed spending $3.1 billion during the next five years to develop the "heavy lift" rocket needed for that task and will commit to selecting by 2015 which design will be built.

Opposition to the Obama space plan has centered around his decision to kill the Constellation program, which included the Ares I rocket, the Orion spacecraft and a heavy-lift Ares V. The administration said the program was well over budget and behind schedule and needed to be replaced. But many astronauts, space policy experts and lawmakers said the decision was a misguided step back from human space exploration. Three of America's most renowned astronauts -- Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan -- wrote an open letter to Obama on Tuesday that called the cancellations "devastating."

Some of the most vocal opposition to Obama's plan came from representatives of the Gulf Coast states that stand to lose thousands of space jobs in the coming years. Construction of Constellation was supposed to replace some of the job opportunities that will be lost when the space shuttle is grounded, as planned during the Bush administration. Obama will tell the Kennedy Space Center crowd that the combination of billions of dollars to upgrade the facility in the next few years, new jobs that will come from launches of the new commercial rockets and work on the Orion will produce 2,500 more jobs by 2012 than Constellation would have created.

Critics also accused the administration of trying to end the entire human space program and cede space exploration to Russia and China. The White House official said that the plan Obama will announce calls for resuming flights on American-built spacecraft to the space station sooner than under the Constellation plan and that formal plans for a heavy-lift rocket will be in place two years sooner than outlined under Constellation. It will also support research and development of in-space refueling and the development of a lightweight, inflatable habitat for astronauts living in space.

Obama's Florida speech will be followed by four break-out sessions in which rocket experts and policymakers will discuss how to move the plan forward.

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