Obama NASA plan: Mars shot as next generation's Apollo mission
According to President Obama, NASA needs a goal beyond the space station and the moon for human spaceflight to inspire the nation as the Apollo mission did. He has chosen Mars.
The US human spaceflight program is on a course for Mars – future budgets, presidents, and Congresses willing.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In a speech delivered at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Thursday afternoon, President Obama aimed to answer charges leveled by lawmakers, former astronauts, and former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials that his plans for the space agency spell doom for the country's human spaceflight program.
In February, the White House released a proposed budget that canceled former President George W. Bush's Constellation program, which set a deadline of 2020 to put US astronauts back on the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission.
Instead, the White House opted for what a presidential commission identified last year as a more financially sustainable program – one that would allow American astronauts to leapfrog the moon and begin visiting more-distant solar-system destinations during the decade of the 2020s and beyond.
Through a speech delineating destinations and rough timetables, however, Mr. Obama appeared to be setting out something potentially more sweeping than raw budget documents indicate – an attempt to build a foundation for the United States to become a spacefaring nation, not just a spacefaring government.
More than simply setting a goal for NASA to develop the technologies and missions needed to send humans beyond the moon, he has challenged the commercial space industry to take up the journeyman tasks that NASA would abandon – such as ferrying astronauts to and from the space station – hoping it will kindle the rise of a true space economy.
“Fifty years after the creation of NASA," he said, "our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite."
Obama's Earth-to-Mars timeline
Under the administration's plan, by the early 2020s, astronauts will be conducting test flights of rockets and hardware needed to support exploration not just beyond low-Earth orbit, but beyond the moon.
By 2025, the president's approach envisions sending the first humans to visit an asteroid. By the mid 2030s, "I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And landing on Mars will follow," he said.
Referring to arguments that the moon should be the next immediate destination – a destination US astronauts have reached six times already – he explained that "what we're looking for is not just to continue on the same path; we want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for NASA."
For many of the administrations critics, the speech did little to mollify their anger.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R) of Utah, where Alliant Techsystems is a prime contractor for the Ares 1 rocket NASA was building under the Constellation program, accused the administration "of relinquishing our position as the global leader in space and missile defense to Russia, China, and India."
Rep. Bill Posey (R) of Florida gave a nod to the president's willlingness to visit the Kennedy Space Center. But he added that the president's effort to end the shuttle program within the next eight months "is deeply disappointing to me."