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Obama Charts New Course for NASA

The president wants humans to explore the solar system by 2025–but his plan faces hurdles in the Senate.

In February, with remarkably little fanfare, NASA released a budget proposal that eliminated plans for a return to the moon, but was vague about where humans would be going next in space and when.

Safety system: This mock-up of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle was developed by NASA to test a planned astronaut escape system. Under Obama’s plan, the vehicle will be docked to the International Space Station and used as an emergency escape capsule.

Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last Thursday, President Obama attempted to fill in the details of his new vision for the space agency, including identifying the solar system destinations he foresees humans visiting in the next three decades.

“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,” he said, starting with a mission to a near-Earth asteroid. “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,” the president added.

Missing from the president’s plan is a return to the moon, which had been the cornerstone of the plans outlined in 2004 by President Bush. “I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before,” Obama said. “There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

Obama also used the speech to describe some changes to the plans rolled out in February. The biggest is the restoration of the Orion spacecraft, which was assumed to be canceled with the rest of the Constellation program after the February announcement. Orion will be retained in a scaled-down form to serve as a crew-return vehicle for the International Space Station. Orion will be launched unmanned and remain docked to the station for months at a time, serving as a “lifeboat” should crews need to evacuate the station.

The near-term benefits of keeping Orion may be more political than technical, according to Robert Walker, a former congressman who served on the science committee and advocated spending on the space program. Walker notes that language in NASA’s current appropriations bill prevents the agency from ending any aspect of Constellation at least through the end of this fiscal year. Keeping Orion in some form makes it possible to get an early start on the new plan, especially if debate over the budget stretches through the end of the year. “It’s a rather clever move by the administration,” Walker says.

Obama’s speech also revealed a plan to make a decision by 2015 on a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to support future exploration missions. The February plan included over $3 billion over the next five years performing launch-vehicle research and development, including the development of a new engine, but the plan didn’t indicate when that research would translate into a decision on a new rocket.

Other aspects of the February plan, though, remain unchanged, including a reliance on commercial operators to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit. As if to emphasize this, prior to his speech, Obama visited the Cape Canaveral launch pad used by SpaceX, speaking with company founder Elon Musk by the company’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which is slated for its first launch next month.

If the speech was intended to win over skeptics and opponents of the agency’s new direction, it was not an immediate success. Many members of Congress who spoke out against the budget proposal in February were not mollified by the president’s words. “The president’s announcement, unfortunately, still will do nothing to ensure America’s superiority in human space exploration or to decrease our reliance on Russia in the interim,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Others, though, softened their views. “The changes that the president has outlined to his NASA proposal are steps in the right direction and a sign that he is listening to my concerns, but there is still room for improvement,” said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Florida), whose district includes Kennedy Space Center. Kosmas was pleased by a $40 million plan announced in the speech to support the region’s economy, which is facing the loss of thousands of jobs when the shuttle is retired later this year.

The first test of the president’s updated vision for NASA will come this Thursday, when a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee holds a hearing on the budget proposal. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), chair of the subcommittee, has said little publicly about the agency’s new direction since February, but she has expressed concern about a lack of specific destinations, something last week’s speech addressed. However, the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, has been a harsh critic, and said after the speech the plan “continues the destruction of 40 years of U.S. space supremacy by pinning our hopes for success on unproven commercial companies.”

The president, though, hopes the plan is seen as an enhancement of such supremacy, despite the disruption it causes in the near term. “That is exactly why it’s so essential that we pursue a new course and that we revitalize NASA and its mission–not just with dollars, but with clear aims and a larger purpose,” Obama said.

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