Not your grandfather’s space program

Obama offers new road map for NASA

Speaking at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center April 15, President Obama outlined a new plan for the space agency that would forgo sending astronauts back to the moon, but would send humans to an asteroid in 2025 and into orbit around Mars a decade later.

The strategy would rely on private aerospace companies to ferry crew and supplies into space. It would also cancel a program known as Constellation, which is aimed at developing a heavy-lift rocket and vehicles to carry astronauts back to the moon, in favor of pursuing a new rocket that would take humans well beyond that destination.

“I am very happy about the introduction of new innovative commercial approaches in human space flight, because we’ve been trapped into a very bad cul-de-sac for 40 years,” says planetary scientist and former NASA associate administrator for science Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. Stern predicts that Congress is likely to approve Obama’s plan.

In Obama’s blueprint, NASA would get an additional $6 billion over the next five years to begin developing new space technologies, refocusing its efforts away from designing space transportation vehicles. The plan would, however, keep plans to develop the Orion crew vehicle, which would be the only U.S. space transport vehicle once the shuttle is retired later this year. And in 2015, the agency would evaluate plans for a rocket that would carry astronauts into deep space.

Early next decade, Obama said, “a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” culminating in the first human journey to an asteroid in 2025.

Journeys to Mars orbit in the mid-2030s would be followed by a landing on Mars, “and I expect to be around to see it,” the president told the cheering crowd.

Obama said he recognized that some experts have called it unwise to rely on the private sector for ferrying crews and supplies into space, but “by buying the services of space transportation rather than the vehicles themselves, we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met but will also accelerate the pace for innovations as companies, from young start-ups to established leaders, compete, design, build and launch new ways of carrying people and materials into space.”

Norm Augustine, who chaired a committee that last year criticized the Constellation program and NASA funding, spoke after Obama. The former chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corp. said the agency “was trapped in low Earth orbit” hauling cargo instead of trying to reach a loftier destination in space. He added that if the agency didn’t rely on U.S. companies to take astronauts into space, it would have no alternative but to rely on Russians.

Obama criticized the Bush administration’s program to send astronauts back to the moon and then eventually on to Mars as a blueprint that lacked both funding and specific goals. “There are also those who have criticized our decision to end parts of Constellation as one that will hinder space exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Obama said. “But by investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies, we have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities.”

Space-policy analyst Howard McCurdy of American University in Washington, D.C., says he doesn’t see much difference in adherence to timetables and goals between Bush’s plan and that of Obama’s. But he says he’s intrigued by Obama’s willingness to “leapfrog” over smaller goals. According to McCurdy’s interpretation, Obama is telling the public “if we go the moon and concentrate on completing project Constellation, it’s going to be a dead end, but if we set our sights a little further out and skip those intermediate steps, we can have real accomplishments.”

It’s a high-risk proposition, says McCurdy, “but as long as NASA has a monopoly on space transportation, it’s going to be like the airline industry in the 1960s — high quality and very expensive.

“The real key in all of this is the ability of the private sector to do what NASA has been unable to do for about the last 30 years, and that is cut the cost to low Earth orbit. As long as NASA was spending $4 billion to $5 billion a year flying the space shuttle, [the agency] was going nowhere,” McCurdy says.   

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