At Space Center, Obama defends changes in space program

By Marc Kaufman and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; A05

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. -- President Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at the Kennedy Space Center Thursday that NASA should aim to send astronauts to explore asteroids beyond the moon by 2025 and visit Mars in the next decade.

Responding to congressional and agency critics who say changes he had proposed in his February budget would kill the human space program, the president said he is "100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future."

He said that the Constellation space program proposed and initiated by the Bush administration was substantially over budget and behind schedule, and was not going to provide a sustainable path to deep space.

Speaking at NASA's Operations and Checkout Building, Obama said the agency could not proceed in the "same old way." He said it needs to bring along commercial space entrepreneurs to handle transport missions to the international space station so the agency would be freed up to think and reach much farther. The ultimate goal is to land astronauts on Mars, he said, and "I expect to be around to see it."

Obama's NASA plans represent some of the most significant changes in the agency's history. But they have not been well received in Congress, or among some former astronauts, including iconic Apollo-era figures including Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell. They released a letter this week calling the scrapping of Constellation "devastating."

The administration is hoping the Kennedy Space Center visit will begin to change the dynamic, and there were early signs Thursday that it is possible. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), for instance, toned down previous criticisms and said Obama is moving in the right direction. Nelson is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee overseeing NASA.

And former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a member of the blue-ribbon Augustine Commission, which cast doubt on the prospects for success under the Constellation program, was one of several recent astronauts to weigh in on the president's side.

She called the plan "a bold strategic shift that 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 -- venturing beyond Earth orbit, beyond the Earth-Moon system, and into the solar system."

In his speech, Obama said that although his administration put a freeze on almost all discretionary spending, it has budgeted $6 billion extra for NASA over five years.

The president said that although the administration is jettisoning much of Constellation, which has cost $9 billion already, he wants to keep work going on a slimmed-down version of the Orion spacecraft. The capsule will be launched without a crew to the space station on a commercial rocket used by the military, then tethered there as an escape vehicle.

"There are also those who have criticized our decision to end parts of Constellation as one that will hinder space exploration beyond low Earth orbit," the president said. "But by investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies, we have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities -- even as we build on the important work already completed, through projects like Orion, for future missions. And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones."

Obama's speech, which was interrupted 15 times by applause, represented his first detailed public comments about the future of NASA since the agency's 2011 budget was released to controversy and opposition. A White House update of plans for NASA released on Tuesday made some concessions to critics, but they were not uniformly well received.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement: "This new plan does not represent an advancement in policy or an improvement upon the Constellation program, but a continued abdication of America's leadership in space."

Shelby is from one of several Gulf Coast states that will lose jobs tied to the space program under Obama's plan. Overall, the NASA budget is to increase by $1 billion annually over the next five years under the 2011 budget proposal, but more of the agency's funds would be distributed to science, aeronautics and commercial entrepreneurs than under President George W. Bush.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), whose state also stands to lose work with the canceling of Constellation, said after the speech: "I would say the administration's plan is laughable, but I can't find much humor in it when the consequences to space exploration and American workers during tough economic times are so dire."

But reflecting the mood of the day from the administration, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said: "The president believes good policy is good politics."

The president focused Thursday on plans to design and develop different kinds of "heavy lift" rockets that can take astronauts out of low Earth orbit and into deep space. He wants Congress to approve plans to spend more than $3.1 billion in the next five years on the project, and said NASA would select and begin to build the selected model in 2015.

One potential major beneficiary of the administration's turn to the commercial space industry to resupply and perhaps ferry crew members to and from the space station is Elon Musk, president and founder of SpaceX. The company's Falcon 9 is being prepared for a spring test launch from Cape Canaveral, and Obama visited the rocket at Launch Complex 40.

"I believe this address could be as important as President Kennedy's 1962 speech at Rice University," Musk said Thursday. "For the first time since Apollo, our country will have a plan for space exploration that inspires and excites all who look to the stars. Even more important, it will work."

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