Space Community Reacts To Obama's Plans

Some details have already emerged about what President Obama will discuss Thursday, when he outlines his vision for the future of human spaceflight. Now, the space community is reacting.

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Tomorrow afternoon, President Obama heads to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to give a speech on the future of human space flight. The president's new plans for NASA have drawn criticism from members of Congress as well as a number of veteran astronauts.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what the president is expected to say tomorrow and whether it's likely to change people's minds.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA is at a crossroads. The agency is scheduled to retire its space shuttles this fall, so astronauts will only be able to get the International Space Station on Russian rockets. NASA had been working on a new rocket program called Constellation, but earlier this year in a major policy change, the White House called for ending Constellation and instead encouraging private companies to develop space taxis to the station.

That's been hugely controversial. So, tomorrow, President Obama will propose keeping part of the Constellation program - a scaled down version of its planned crew capsule. But the capsule would only be attached to the station for use as a life boat in an emergency. It wouldn't transport astronauts up and back.

That plan doesn't satisfy Congressman Pete Olson, a Republican who represents the Texas district that's home to Houston's Mission Control.

Representative PETE OLSON (Republican, Texas): The president's taken a very small step. It is not enough.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it doesn't address lawmakers' concerns about having to rely on Russia or unproven private companies.

Rep. OLSON: It's a recognition by the administration that they are having bipartisan opposition, but that doesn't solve our problem.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Olson remains convinced that the best way to get astronauts to the station and beyond is continuing to develop Constellation.

In his speech, the president will discuss how he wants NASA to focus on getting astronauts out beyond the station. He wants to accelerate NASA's development of a massive rocket that would allow trips to the moon, an asteroid or eventually Mars. His timeline would have the design for such a rocket by 2015. The White House says that would mean construction could begin sooner than planned under the Constellation program.

Marion Blakey is head of the Aerospace Industries Association. She said aerospace workers are hoping the president will finally set clear deadlines, for getting to specific deep-space destinations.

Ms. MARION BLAKEY (President and CEO, Aerospace Industries Association): Setting those kinds of deadlines galvanizes everyone to action. In other words, we need a real plan.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Supporters of the president's proposal say his plan to get people out in the solar system is real and is actually more ambitious than Constellation's goal of returning to the moon.

Louis Friedman is executive director of the Planetary Society.

Mr. LOUIS FRIEDMAN (Executive Director, Planetary Society): I have a certain amusement about many political leaders talking about the new plan as somehow losing American leadership in space because we're not going back to the moon and doing what we did 40 years ago.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks that so far the administration has not done such a good job of explaining the advantages of its strategy.

John Logsdon is a space policy expert at George Washington University. He says the stakes for tomorrow's speech are high.

Dr. JOHN LOGSDON (Space Policy, George Washington University): They say it's a possibility of being a Kennedy moment in the sense that it puts the presidential stamp on a space program that's going to last for decades.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, probably the only ones in the space community who won't be listening are astronauts orbiting the Earth in the space station and shuttle. That's because NASA currently has no plans to beam up live video.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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