- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | To be evolutionary or revolutionary - that is the question facing the nation’s unsettled space program.

President Obama faced a crowd of 200-plus people at Kennedy Space Center Thursday, touting his revision for the next phase of the space program with emphasis on creating new space technologies and jobs while increasing the involvement of commercial industries. Under fire from some storied figures of the U.S. space program, Mr. Obama stressed that it is time to write a new chapter in NASA’s history book.

“I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” he said, standing in front of the mock-up of the proposed new Orion space capsule. “The shuttle is at the stage of retiring after years of service.”

Pledging $6 billion to his revamped vision of the U.S. space program, which relies heavily on private-sector contributions, Mr. Obama acknowledged the world has changed since President Kennedy committed the nation in 1961 to reaching the moon in a decade.

“We are no longer racing against the Russians,” Mr. Obama said. “Today [getting to space] is a global collaboration.”

With the phasing out of the shuttle program in early 2011, 7,000 to 9,000 people across the nation could be out of work. However, by keeping the Orion capsule going - with plans to use it as a ferry or lifeboat to the International Space Station - Mr. Obama argued that as many as 2,500 jobs could come back to Florida by 2012 and upward of 10,000 nationwide over the next few years.

However, critics argue that NASA should have stayed on its evolutionary path of building the Constellation program from the ashes of the shuttle era, as suggested by former President George W. Bush, with the idea of reviving manned missions to the moon and eventually to Mars. NASA already has spent $19 billion over six years on the troubled effort, only to have the program scrubbed by the new administration.

Mr. Obama insisted Thursday that his blueprint will free up the space agency to focus on development of new exploration technologies. He announced during his speech that the first destination beyond the space station is an asteroid, with a goal of traveling on to Mars,

“We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” he said. “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.”

The administration plan depends heavily on commercial companies to ferry astronauts to the space station for the time being. Another alternative is to rely on the Russian space program for launch services, with a round-trip ticket costing between $70 million and $100 million per trip.

In January, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel concluded that no private launch firm was certified for carrying humans into space, nor is there a mechanism far enough along in development to earn such a certification. One private initiative, SpaceX, saw its early prototypes fail three times before its Falcon 1 rocket orbited the Earth in 2008. In 2007, three employees of Scaled Composites were killed in an explosion while testing a nitrous oxide delivery system,

“We are 40 years beyond the first landing of humans on the moon, and yet we are still far from the capability to conduct long-duration missions outside low Earth orbit, let alone being able to consider sending humans to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told attendees at the annual National Space Symposium on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama’s plan has met with fierce opposition from astronaut Neil Armstrong and other NASA pioneers and with bipartisan skepticism from lawmakers whose districts in Florida and elsewhere include large concentrations of NASA employees and contractors.

Mr. Armstrong and fellow former astronauts Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan released a strongly worded letter accusing Mr. Obama of “effectively dismembering” the U.S. space program.

“It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus-billion investment in Constellation,” the three astronauts wrote. “…Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the [United States] is far too likely to be on a long downward slide to mediocrity.”

However, former Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Mr. Armstrong’s partner on the first moon mission, endorsed Mr. Obama’s plan and sat in the front row at Kennedy Space Center for the president’s speech.

John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University and its Space Policy Institute, also backed Mr. Obama’s change of direction.

“It is time to be more than just a taxi service to Earth in low orbit,” Mr. Logsdon said. “Things are going to be different. NASA is a space program, not a jobs program.”

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