The US human spaceflight program is on a course for Mars – future budgets, presidents, and Congresses willing.
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."
A fresh vision?
But others applaud what they see as a fresh vision for the US human spaceflight program.
The speech "was truly inspiring," says Louis Friedman, founder and executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. Before founding the society, Dr. Freidman worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was deeply involved in several pioneering robotic space missions.
"No president since John Kennedy has gone out on the road to sell his space program," he says. "This is American leadership, to do things that have never been done before."
Norman Augustine – who headed the presidential commission whose "flexible path" option the president has elected to follow – noted after the president spoke that during the panel's public hearings, members heard from young people who referred to a return to the moon as "my grandfather's space program."
Indeed, the criticisms from many Apollo-era astronauts of decisions being taken by or supported by more-recent astronauts – both on the Augustine panel as well as the current head of NASA – give the appearance that a generational tug of war is underway over the program's future.
To some extent that may be true, Friedman acknowledges. But he points to space program veterans such as Buzz Aldrin, who supports the president's approach, as well as himself as indicating more is at play that a generational transition.
"It's an outlook thing, too," he says. "It's those who want to think about the glory of the past and try to recapture it. This new approach is about the future. And it's about engaging industries that didn't exist 40 years ago."
Privatizing trips to the space station
He cites the president's aim to turn over to private companies astronaut transport to and from the space station in low-Earth orbit. NASA has tried several times to develop more-cost-effective launch systems for transporting people and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit. They either failed to deliver the cost benefits as promiesd – as in the shuttle's case – or the development programs became too drawn out and expensive to continue.
"NASA should be working the frontiers, and not doing the routine," Friedman says.
But turning to the private sector as the future of transport to the space station now puts the onus on commercial rocketeers to deliver.
Next month, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), headed by one-time Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is set to launch its new Falcon 9 rocket from a pad at the Kennedy Space Center. In December 2008, NASA selected SpaceX and another firm, Orbital Sciences, to provide cargo and later crew transport to and from the space station under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
Members of the so-called NewSpace aerospace companies are acutely aware of what's at stake.
"The opportunity that we're faced with is terrifying and wonderful," said Jeff Greason, a member of the Augustine panel and the head of XCOR Aerospace, speaking at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., earlier this week, according to the space-policy website The Space Review.
"If we blow it this time, I don't know that we're going to get another chance, because I'm not sure there's going to be a United States space industry for us to work for," he said.