In a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Barack Obama defended his strategy for NASA's future which points the agency away from returning humans to the Moon and more towards eventually landing them on Mars.
His way forward for NASA as the Space Shuttle program is scheduled to an end later this year would also keep the International Space Station in NASA's plans longer than the predecessor Bush Administration had planned.
And, unlike the prior administration, it would place greater emphasis on NASA working with private companies to get humans safely into space and back.
While the end of the shuttle program would mean the loss of jobs in the Space Coast, Obama assured NASA workers that his approach, which would include refurbishing Kennedy Space Center, would actually create more jobs in the end.
In trying to reassure NASA's people of his commitment to space exploration, he told them he views the space program not as optional but essential to American progress:
For me, the space program has always captured an essential part of what it means to be an American, reaching for new heights, stretching beyond what previously did not seem possible. And so as president, I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, it's not an afterthought in America's quest for a brighter future. It is an essential part of that quest.
A little later, Obama said:
The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we've got to to do it — (applause) — in a smart way — and we — and we can't just keep on doing the same old things that we've been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to go.
The Obama Administration has taken flak for reorienting the space program away from a return to the Moon and to the longer term goal of Mars.
The Bush Administration had pointed NASA towards a new Constellation program whose rockets that would bring supplies to the space station and eventually return astronauts to the Moon and, later, Mars.
But Obama sought to soften the blow to NASA represented by an end to the Constellation program by essentially saying the Moon was yesterday's news. He referred to Buzz Aldrin, the well-known former astronaut who once walked on the Moon and more recently was on "Dancing With the Stars" who supports Obama's strategy and was in the audience.
Now I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned. But I — I just have to say, pretty bluntly here, we've been there before. (Scattered applause.) Buzz has been there. There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it's more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach and operate at a series of increasingly demanding targets while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward.
That was meant as a rebuttal to the highly critical letter by former lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan that became public earlier in the week. "Devastating" was how they described Obama's decision to end the Constellation program.
The one moment where Obama seemed to be throwing down a JFK-like challenge to NASA came in this part of the speech in which he gave a timeline for a manned Mars mission:
... And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft, designed for long journeys, to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. So we'll start — (applause) — 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, and I expect to be around to see it. (Applause.)
But I want to repeat — I want to repeat this. Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies.
So I'm challenging NASA to break through these barriers, and we'll give you the resources to break through these barriers. And I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity, because that's what you've always done.
Obama also took on critics of his plan to lean more heavily on the private sector to provide the lift capability to get astronauts and supplies into space:
In order to reach the space station we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable. Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree. The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago to the Space Shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead.
Worth checking out, by the way, is a post by astrophysicist Adam Frank on NPR's 13.7 blog. Frank brings some realistic perspective to humankind's likely future in space over the next century. In short, it's more likely we'll be gallivanting around Solar System than cruising across galaxies like the Star Trek's Starship Enterprise.