At Space Center, Obama defends changes in space program

President Barack Obama says the U.S. space program is not a luxury but a necessity for the nation. He says he is "100 percent committed" to NASA and its future. (April 15)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

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.

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