Published online 16 April 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.189


Obama outlines vision for space

US President rallies support at NASA despite unpopular cuts to the Constellation rocket programme.

ObamaBarack Obama: winning hearts and minds at NASA?Mark Schrope

President Barack Obama touched down in somewhat hostile territory at Florida's John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral yesterday. His mission: to promote and expand on the widely criticized space-exploration plans he announced in his 2011 budget request in February, and convince the country that his vision is specific, achievable and as inspirational as past space triumphs.

The President's plan calls for a $6 billion increase over the next five years in NASA's overall budget, which is currently just under $19 billion. Besides expanding Earth observations, key components include ending the Constellation programme initiated by former president George W. Bush, which aimed to develop new rockets and capsules that would put astronauts back on the Moon, but which is behind schedule and over budget.

Instead, Obama wants NASA to enlist private companies to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, whose lifespan the President would extend by 5 years from 2015 to 2020. He also set specific goals of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the 2030s.

As part of this exploration plan, 2015 is now the deadline for finalizing a heavy-lift rocket design, and there will be renewed focus on advanced propulsion systems and other technologies. "I'm challenging NASA to break through these barriers," said Obama, "and we'll give you the resources to break through these barriers."

“There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

The day before the President's 15 April speech, China announced plans to put a rover on the Moon by 2013 and to eventually launch space stations. Obama made no mention of China, nor the timing of its announcements, but he did explicitly say that returning to the Moon would no longer be a US goal. "I just have to say pretty bluntly here: we've been there before," he said. "There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do."

Obama promised that his plans would offset about half of the expected job losses as the shuttle programme winds down, meaning 2,500 more new jobs at the Kennedy Space Center than would have been created by Constellation. These will come from upgrading the space centre in preparation for anticipated commercial launches, and building a scaled-down version of the Constellation programme's Orion crew capsule to use as an emergency escape vehicle at the International Space Station.

The promise of jobs was welcome news for the local population, which has long dreaded the scheduled 2010 retirement of the space shuttle and was largely incensed by the February budget announcement.

"I think it's very unfortunate that this new vision for space exploration came out as part of the budget," says Edward Crawley, an astronautics engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and a member of the committee that reviewed the US plans for human space flight. "This is the place you do it," he says. "You put the President of the United States on the podium and you let him speak."

Senator Bill Nelson (Democrat, Florida), who has lobbied the President since February for changes to the overall space vision, was pleased with what he heard, even though Obama made no mention of the additional space shuttle launch that Nelson and others have called for. "We asked him to restructure the Constellation programme. He did that. We asked him to speed up the development of the heavy-lift vehicle. He did that. We asked him to set destinations out in the Universe and a timetable and he did that," says Nelson.

Still, it is unlikely that the President's speech quashed the concerns of legislators in Florida or other states, such as Texas and California, that have major economic ties to the space programme. Legislators have criticized Obama's vision for being too dependent on private industry and too vague to offer confidence that the goals can be met or the promised jobs created.

Crawley thinks that at least some of the fuzziness in Obama's current plans may be deliberate and ultimately beneficial, because other countries have made it clear that they want to play a part in shaping what are likely to be collaborative space-exploration efforts. "They didn't want to be told by the Americans what the Americans were doing and then asked to join," he says.

"So, by allowing a little bit of planning time, not only are we allowing NASA to develop the technology, we're allowing deliberation at the intergovernmental level. I think that'll be very important for the long term." 

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