Obama insists new plan will spur deep-space exploration

Touting his new space policy, President Obama says he is committed to manned space exploration, calling for a near-term shift to commercial rockets and long-range plans to explore deep space.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
6 min read
Obama speaks at the Kennedy Space Center
Obama speaks at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now; used with permission

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--President Barack Obama flew to the Kennedy Space Center Thursday to sell his new space policy, a radical change of course for NASA that would cancel the Constellation moon program and shift manned launches to private industry while NASA studies options for future deep space exploration.

For the first time, the president laid out a rough timeline for expeditions beyond low-Earth orbit and even the moon, calling for manned missions to nearby asteroids by the mid-2020s, flights to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, and manned landings shortly after.

"The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space, than I am," he said. "But we've got to do it in a smart way and we can't just keep on doing the same old things we've been doing and thinking that somehow that's going to get us where we want to go."

In a perfect storm of politics, a struggling economy, and changing priorities, the president's new plan comes as NASA is struggling to complete the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle, resulting in more than 7,000 lost jobs this year at the Kennedy Space Center alone.

Because of earlier funding shortfalls, NASA already was facing a five- to six-year gap between the end of the shuttle program and the debut of the Ares I rocket that is being designed as part of the Constellation program. During that interim, the agency will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

With the proposed cancellation of Constellation and the Ares family of rockets, NASA will rely on private industry to build new rockets and capsules to fill the breach. No such "man-rated" rockets or spacecraft currently exist, but the administration believes the private sector can deliver new hardware in three to five years, first launching cargo capsules to the station and eventually astronauts.

As for deep space exploration, the administration plans to proceed with development of a new heavy lift rocket in 2015 that would take the place of the Constellation program's Ares V to boost future manned spacecraft out of Earth's orbit to any one of a variety of deep space targets. Possible destinations include the moon, near-Earth asteroids, the moons of Mars and, eventually, Mars itself.

Obama also has approved a plan to modify the Constellation program's Orion crew capsule for use as an emergency escape vehicle for the International Space Station, promising to use the spacecraft as a test bed for future deep space missions.

Obama said he plans to put $3 billion toward research on an advanced heavy lift rocket that could send crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies into deep space.

A launch tower being built for the Ares I rocket, part of NASA's now-canceled Constellation program, stands at the Kennedy Space Center with the program's target--the moon--visible in the remote distance. CBS News

"In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models. We want to look at new designs, new materials, and new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it. That's at least two years earlier than previously planned, and that's conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over-budget."

"At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster for less cost, and to live and work in space for longer periods of time more safely," Obama said.

The lack of firm targets and timetables was a major source of criticism from opponents to the president's plan, concerns he at least partially addressed Thursday. He insisted his approach will bear fruit in the years ahead by making the space program more affordable and sustainable over the long haul.

"By investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies, we have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities...for future missions," Obama said. "And unlike the previous program, we are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones."

Obama's timetable calls for crewed flights in the next decade to test the systems required to go beyond low-Earth orbit. He said he hopes to have crewed missions beyond the moon and into deep space by 2025--beginning with a first-ever trip to an asteroid.

"Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies," he said. "So I'm challenging NASA to break through these barriers."

Air Force One landed at Kennedy Space Center's shuttle Thursday, marking the first spaceport visit by a sitting president since Bill Clinton attended a shuttle launch in 1998.

Obama began his visit by touring the Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, rocket processing facility at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX, a relatively small company founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is building a new family of rockets as a commercial venture to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX hopes to become a player in the manned launch marketplace under the administration's new policy.

"Handing over Earth orbit transport to American commercial companies, overseen of course by NASA and the FAA, will free up the NASA resources necessary to develop interplanetary transport technologies," Musk said in a statement. "This is critically important if we are to reach Mars, the next giant leap in human exploration of the universe."

While the new space policy will not replace lost shuttle jobs, the president said up to 2,500 new jobs will be created at the Kennedy Space Center above and beyond the 2,000 jobs that had been earmarked for Constellation.

Even so, the administration's proposed policy shift has generated widespread opposition in Congress and among current and former NASA contractors and civil servants.

"We are very concerned about America ceding its hard-earned global leadership in space technology to other nations," read a letter signed by more than two dozen former astronauts and NASA managers, including legendary flight directors Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft, and Glynn Lunney.

"We are stunned that, in a time of economic crisis, this move will force as many as 30,000 irreplaceable engineers and managers out of the space industry. We see our human exploration program, one of the most inspirational tools to promote science, technology, engineering, and math to our young people, being reduced to mediocrity."

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, the chief architect of the Constellation program, said he did not understand how the plan is an improvement.

"We had an integrated architecture," he said in an e-mail. "They have hope. We had a 'public option' along with commercial alternatives, when and as they matured. They have a commercial option only, they are leaving the International Space Station a hostage to fortune, and they are spending money on technology in what might be termed a faith-based initiative. We knew how to replace (the) shuttle, get to the moon, and go on to Mars. They don't."

But Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, said in a statement that the new policy "will enable NASA to return to its roots: developing innovative technologies aimed at enabling human exploration and tackling the truly challenging aspects of human spaceflight, enduring beyond Earth orbit, beyond the Earth-moon system, and into the solar system."

Along with extending the life of the International Space Station, the new policy "articulates a strategy for human exploration that will excite and energize the next generation," Ride said. "It shifts our focus from the moon and frees us to chart a path for human exploration into the solar system."