Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where America’ s moon missions originated decades ago, Obama said he was “100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future.”
In his speech, Obama announced that he wants to accelerate the development of a large, heavy-lift rocket to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. He called for a decision on the new rocket design in 2015. The rocket could be geared to launching new spacecraft and payloads for ambitious expeditions to a nearby asteroid and stable points in space called Lagrange points in preparation for a manned spaceflight to Mars.
Obama said that by 2025 he expects U.S. space exploration to reach beyond the moon and farther into the solar system’s reaches, adding that he is aiming to send U.S. astronauts into Mars orbit by the mid-2030s.
“So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. 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,” Obama told a crowd of about 200 space experts, scientists and members of Congress.
Obama’s plan includes resurrecting a pared down version of the capsule-based Orion spacecraft initially slated to be scrapped under the president’s cancellation of the Constellation program in February.
The new version of the Orion spacecraft would be launched unmanned to the International Space Station to serve as an escape ship for American astronauts, giving NASA more flexibility from its reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, White House officials said.
The president was making a trip to the heart of the U.S. space industry, seeking to explain why he aborted former president George W. Bush’s return-to-the moon plan.
Obama has faced sharp criticism for proposing to abandon the Constellation moon program after nine billion dollars has been spent, and to allocate six billion dollars to support private companies in developing space rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA’s original Constellation program aimed at retiring the space shuttle fleet in late 2010 and replacing it with Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets by 2015. But an independent review by a White House committee found the program behind schedule and underfunded to accomplish its end-goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020.
“We’ve been there before,” Obama said. “There’s a lot more of space to explore.”
The Obama administration estimates the new plan would create an estimated 2,500 jobs in the Cape Canaveral area.
To ease the transition for workers dislocated, Obama proposed a 40-million-dollar fund to help transform the regional economy around NASA’s Florida facilities and prepare its workforce for new opportunities.
Obama’s visit is the first time in 12 years a sitting U.S. president has visited the Florida spaceport.
The last Commander in Chief to visit the NASA spaceport was President Bill Clinton, who appeared to watch original Mercury astronaut John Glenn rocket into space aboard the shuttle Discovery at age 77.
Obama’s proposal to cancel the Constellation program and call on commercial spacecraft builders to provide the spaceships to launch astronauts into space has drawn harsh criticism from lawmakers and the public alike.
Most recently, famed Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong — the first person to walk on the moon — and other lunar explorers spoke out against the plan in an e-mail statement sent to the media. Armstrong and fellow Apollo program astronauts Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan called Obama’s space vision “devastating” to the United States’ spaceflight legacy.
“To be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature,” the former astronauts wrote.
Obama’s new plan also has supporters.
“Space exploration involves more than human. The robotic exploration of space is doing very well, and is enhanced in the President’s plans for NASA. The new human space flight program … has the potential for ensuring U.S. leadership in space into the future,” University of Michigan Professor Len Fisk told Xinhua in an email.
Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon with Armstrong during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, also thought Mars is “the next frontier for humankind” and he hoped NASA “will embrace this new direction as much as I do.”