LOS ANGELES – At the launch center where the U.S. had dominated space travel over the last half century, President Barack Obama on Thursday laid out a new vision for the nation’s space ambitions, focusing on future deep space missions rather than a return trip to the moon.
The proposal differs significantly from the austere program Obama laid out last January when he terminated the moon program. Critics had attacked the plan as a historic withdrawal of U.S. ambitions in space travel just as China and other developing nations are gearing up to retrace U.S. steps on the moon.
Obama’s latest blueprint includes a $3 billion research effort for a new heavy lift rocket that could carry astronauts to asteroids, Mars or other possible deep space destinations, as well as a new reliance on private companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.
“I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” Obama said, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as he sought to reassure a conference of top National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials, lawmakers and scientists who were discussing an agenda for the U.S. space program.
“Space exploration is not a luxury, not an afterthought in America’s brighter future,” Obama said. “It is an essential part of that quest.”
But even with the expanded program, the U.S. will end human space flight for many years when the last space shuttle launches later this year and the fleet is retired after three decades. Then, NASA will be dependent entirely on Russian launch vehicles to reach the space station.
Under the Bush administration, NASA was developing the Constellation family of rockets and an Orion space capsule that could carry a crew of astronauts to the moon or other destinations. After spending $9 billion, the program was far behind schedule and over budget. An exhaustive examination of the program last year concluded that its ambitions vastly exceeded its future budget.
Obama decided to kill the Constellation earlier this year and Tuesday bluntly panned the whole idea of a moon return program. “We have been there before,” he said.
The cancellation of both the Constellation and the end of the space shuttle was threatening the loss of thousands of jobs, prompting a political backlash in Florida and Texas that benefit from human space flight programs.
Even though the Obama plan included a budget increase of $6 billion over the next five years, objections rose from former astronauts, politicians and the aerospace industry.
In response to that backlash, Obama revived the Orion space capsule program, but downsized it to operate only as a crew rescue vehicle for the space station. He announced a $40 million initiative for regional economic growth in Florida.