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.

Workers test the sea worthiness of a full-size mockup of the Orion crew capsule on April 8, 2009. The capsule was part of the Bush-era Constellation program to return Americans to the moon. Though President Obama has scrapped the Constellation program, he will announce tomorrow that he is saving the Orion capsule, which will be converted into an emergency return vehicle for the space station.

President Obama travels to Florida's space coast Thursday for a much-anticipated summit on the future of the US human spaceflight program.

The goal is to give the advocate-in-chief an opportunity to make his case for proposals that represent the most radical overhaul of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's human spaceflight effort in the agency's storied 52-year history.

In a preview of the president's key bullet points on how humans will fit into NASA space exploration, administration officials yesterday offered additional details about the approach.

  • Convert the capsule initially designed to carry humans and cargo to the International Space Station under the Bush administration's Constellation program to an emergency return "lifeboat" vehicle for the space station.
  • Choose a design for a new heavy-lift rocket that could take astronauts and cargo beyond Earth orbit by 2015 – two years earlier than would have happened under the Constellation program.
  • Pursue "stepping stone destinations" such as asteroids or orbiting Mars during the decade of the 2020s, all in anticipation of eventually landing humans on Mars.

But if advocates for the Bush-era Constellation program – and its deadline for putting Americans back on the moon – were hoping to see the president outline significant changes to his blueprint for NASA after two months of withering criticism, they are likely to be disappointed.

"It's not a radical departure" from the plan the administration outlined in February, when it released its fiscal 2011 budget proposals, says James Lewis, a senior fellow specializing in space and technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The president's plan

Under the president's plan, the Constellation program – aimed at returning US astronauts to the moon by 2020, but which many analysts say was underfunded to achieve that goal – would be virtually eliminated.

The shuttle program would fly out its final three mission by early 2011. US participation in the International Space Station would extend to at least 2020. And the task of transporting cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit would fall to privately financed and operated rocket companies.

"They're very committed to the idea of turning low-Earth orbit transportation over the commercial sector," says Howard McCurdy, a space-policy specialist at American University in Washington.

"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.

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.

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