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Obama NASA plan gets mixed reviews

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Call it NASA: The Next Generation. The president is pointing America toward a new direction in space, and some heroes from NASA's long-ago glory days don't like it.

New rockets to the moon have been canceled. And the space shuttles are about to be mothballed. Instead, the Obama administration wants to rely more on private companies to fly into space over the next few years, while also working to develop a big, new government rocket ship.

But the plan lacks details, and neither a specific initial destination nor a spacecraft has been settled on.

The old space hands aren't buying it. From Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, to the last astronaut to leave his footprints there, many Apollo-era space veterans are upset. They especially don't like President Obama's cancellation of President George W. Bush's goal of getting to Mars after returning to the moon. They accuse Mr. Obama of abandoning American leadership in space to the Chinese and Russians.

But others in a younger generation - including Internet pioneers of the 1990s - are excited about the president's vision. NASA will spend $6 billion to encourage private companies to build their own spaceships to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. They see the Obama plan as the only way to eventually get astronauts to Mars.

"This is a generational shift in the space program," said MIT astronautics professor Ed Crawley, who served on a White House-appointed panel last year to re-evaluate the space program.

In a visit to Cape Canaveral on Thursday, the president will try to sell a skeptical space community on his concept. He is bringing some new adjustments to the plan to demonstrate his commitment to exploring space, building spacecraft and keeping local jobs, administration officials said.

The Obama plan extends the space station's life by five years and puts billions into research to develop the big new rocket ship capable of reaching a nearby asteroid, the moon or other points in space. Those stops would be stepping stones in an eventual mission to Mars. But the specifics have not been worked out.

PayPal founder Elon Musk said his company SpaceX hopes to fly astronauts to the space station by the end of 2013. He figures he will charge NASA about $20 million an astronaut. That's a bargain compared with the more than $300 million a head it was going to cost NASA under the Bush plan, and the $56 million NASA will pay Russia for trips on Soyuz rockets in the short term.

Mr. Musk's Falcon 9 unmanned rocket is sitting on a Cape Canaveral pad with its initial launch a month away. Several companies are competing with Mr. Musk, including one run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Mr. Musk said what's happening is "the new generation of space."

But Mr. Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon, and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell spent much of March together, touring the Persian Gulf. They talked about how much they dislike the change in space priorities, Mr. Cernan said.

"We have just given up manned spaceflight," Mr. Cernan said. "It is the demise of American people in space except in someone else's vehicle. This is a catastrophe."

Mr. Lovell said the concept of putting more money into technology is fine, but the plan lacks vision.

On Monday, 27 former astronauts and senior NASA officials - including Mr. Bush's NASA chief, Michael Griffin - wrote an open letter to the president, contending that canceling the moon program would cede American leadership in space technology.

In response to the criticism and in an effort to relieve Florida job fears, Obama administration officials said Tuesday that the president will announce two changes:

c Reviving the Orion crew capsule designed under the Bush moon plan.

c Speeding up development of the massive new rocket. It could be ready around the end of the decade, a few years earlier than previously planned.

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