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Despite uproar, Obama holds firm on NASA space exploration plans

Lawmakers and former astronauts have lambasted President Obama for scrapping a moon mission. Thursday, Obama will defend his vision for NASA space exploration through human spaceflight.

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"How many times do you get to swing the bat? NASA's been at the plate since 1972 trying to develop a low-cost, low-Earth-orbit transportation system, and it hasn't been very successful at that," he says. "The administration's attitude is: It's time to get NASA to work on other things and let the commercial sector" pick up the travels to low-Earth orbit.

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Those "other things" would include developing technologies - included a powerful, so-called heavy-lift rocket - to enable astronauts to make pioneering trips to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.

The plan has been the target of scathing critiques from federal lawmakers who have NASA centers in their districts and states.

Veterans of the space program have also taken aim. In an open letter published Monday, 27 former NASA astronauts and former agency officials argued that the new approach will reduce the human spaceflight program to mediocrity.

"NASA must continue at the frontiers of human space exploration in order to develop the technology and set the standards of excellence that will enable commercial space ventures to eventually succeed. Canceling NASA's human space operations, after 50 years of unparalleled achievement, makes that objective impossible," they wrote.

Following Augustine's advice

The approach the White House is proposing closely mirrors an option for a fiscally sustainable human spaceflight program set out last summer by a presidential panel headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine.

The option included destinations such as asteroids, Lagrange points on the Earth's orbital path around the sun that could be sites for space stations, and Mars.

Meanwhile, the new decision not to scrap the Constellation's Orion crew capsule but to convert it to a space station lifeboat will save "critical high-tech contractor jobs in Colorado, Texas, and Florida," the White House says.

Even before Congress approves a budget NASA for next year, the agency's centers around the country have gotten word of their changing roles. Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver, unveiled new assignments for the centers that reflect the shift the White House envisions.

This may seem like handing Congress a fait accompli, but Dr. McCurdy notes that historically, Congress has acted more as a review board for White House actions "than as an initiator of space policy."

If lawmakers "continue to fulfill their traditional role, they'll tinker at the margins, but not change the basic direction," he says.