STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama's in the midst of a storm of criticism for his proposals to revamp NASA. He travels to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida tomorrow to defend his vision for the space agency and announce some revision. While supporters say the president's plan charts a realistic path forward, critics fear he's putting NASA on a mission to nowhere. Even Stephen Colbert has weighed in.
(Soundbite of television program "The Colbert Report")
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Worst of all, worst of all, guess what NASA plans to spend its budget on now that Obama has killed the Constellation program, 4.9 billion to develop better robotics and 3 billion to develop unmanned ships. Robots in unmanned ships. Sending robots into space does not win glory for Americans, it wins glory for Roombas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: And NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce covers the space program for us and she joined us to preview the president's speech.
Now, there's some serious business at stake here, obviously, Nell. Remind us of exactly what this controversy's about. The shuttle fleet is about to be retired. Where does that leave America in terms of space flight?
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for awhile we won't have any independent access into space. We'll be relying on Russian rockets to take American astronauts up to the International Space Station.
Now, NASA has been working on a replacement space capsule and rockets that would take astronauts, not just to the station, but eventually to the moon and, you know, the grand future was off to Mars someday. That was called the Constellation program.
But after President Obama was elected, he asked a blue ribbon panel of experts to sort of assess the Constellation program. It said that the Constellation program had long been underfunded, that it was behind schedule and that its goals weren't feasible. So the White House came up with an entirely new approach.
They decided to extend the life of the International Space Station, which is nearing completion, but they would cancel Constellation. And to get astronauts to the station they would rely on commercial companies to develop kinds of space taxis that would just sort of ferry astronauts there and back.
And meanwhile, that would free up NASA to focus on advanced technologies that would take astronauts, you know, someday far out into the solar system, out to asteroids and to points far into space and even on to Mars.
MONTAGNE: And not everyone liked that idea?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: No, it got a lot of criticism from all over, from lawmakers, from high-profile Apollo astronauts. People said if we're not going to the moon, you know, where are we going? They wanted specific goals and destinations. There were a lot of concerns about jobs. You know, people who'd worked in the shuttle program had plans to move into the Constellation program after the shuttle was retired. But if that program was no longer going to be around then what were they going to do?
People said, oh, you know, if you rely on commercial companies to be kind of space taxi service, what if these companies aren't able to quickly create these capsules and ferry people up into space. The other concern was just a loss of the experience at NASA, which has a long legacy of building and flying spaceships. And there was a concern that if NASA wasn't going to continue doing this that that experience would sort of wither away.
MONTAGNE: And what is the president then going to say tomorrow to try to address those concerns?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, according to information we're getting from the White House and NASA, he's going to propose continuing part of the Constellation program. So basically he's going to propose building a scaled down version of the Orion crew capsule. That's where the astronauts sit in. That's the little capsule they sit in.
It would have to be launched unmanned by an existing commercial rocket. And the idea is that they'd just put this up on the space station and have it there as a kind of emergency life boat.
He'll also announce a plan to speed up NASA's work on the kind of heavy lifting rocket that you need to eventually get astronauts out into the solar system, beyond the space station. A lot of people will like the idea of getting into deep space sooner, but the plan that's going to be discussed in the speech doesn't really address the problem of getting to and from the space station and relying on Russia or commercial companies. So we'll have to see.
But even people who support the president's vision for NASA, say it hasn't been communicated well so far. And this is the president's opportunity to convince people that he really does want to push NASA farther out into space and that he isn't trying to ruin human space flight.
MONTAGNE: Nell Greenfieldboyce covers the space program for NPR. Thanks very much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.