WASHINGTON ? President Barack Obama will present a conference April 15 in Florida on the country's future in space exploration, the White House announced Saturday.
The president, top government officials and other space leaders will discuss the course the White House is charting for NASA and human spaceflight, according to an Obama administration official who asked not to be identified because details of the event are not final.
The conference will come as Congress weighs the White House's 2011 budget proposal, which has been criticized for shutting down the Constellation program that was to replace the soon-to-retire shuttles.
Specific participants of the conference and the location weren't announced, though Sen. Bill Nelson said he assumed it would happen at or near Kennedy Space Center.
Nelson said Saturday that the conference is an opportunity for Obama to definitively set a Mars landing as a goal and to establish a timetable to develop a powerful new rocket capable of making flights to Mars or elsewhere beyond low Earth orbit.
"What I asked the president to do is to announce the goal of Mars, which they have indicated that he will, and then to flesh that out while setting a reasonable time frame and then how they would proceed with the architecture," Nelson said. "If you're going to Mars, you have to have a heavy-lift vehicle.
"The president has got to set the vision, and he's got to set the goal," said Nelson, D-Orlando. "Only the president can lead the manned space program."
U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, referring to a campaign stop Obama made to the Space Coast, said the president should simply honor his commitment to Brevard County.
"While I welcome the conversation from the president, between now and then, he needs to seriously revise his NASA budget," Posey said. "His current proposal falls far short of the promises he made to the Space Coast in 2008."
KSC is the epicenter for post-shuttle angst, largely because of the huge job losses projected for Brevard.
Nearly 9,000 space jobs are expected to disappear as the shuttle program shuts down and the Constellation project -- which had been seen as something of a job-saver -- never gets off the ground.
The heavy-lift rocket development program being sought by Nelson and others in Congress would require ongoing test flights over a period of years, which varying estimates say could mean anywhere from a few hundred to 1,500 jobs here.
Any space jobs that could be saved would help a challenging local economic situation. All told, nearly 23,000 jobs are considered in jeopardy on the Space Coast, local officials estimate. That's because as many as 14,000 non-space jobs could be lost at regional businesses that depend on a bustling space center.
The timing of the conference is good because it will occur before a key Senate science subcommittee votes on NASA's budget in May, said Nelson, who heads the subcommittee.
Obama has proposed $6 billion over five years in new funding for NASA, for a total of $100 billion between 2011 and 2015.
He and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden promoted the budget as taking a bold new direction, supporting commercial spaceflight and research at the International Space Station.
"The president and the NASA administrator both believe that we have to be forward-thinking and aggressive in our pursuit of new technologies to take us beyond low Earth orbit, and the president's plan does this," the Obama administration official said.
At a Nelson-led hearing Feb. 24, Bolden said Mars remains the ultimate destination for human space explorers, along with possible visits to asteroids or a return to the moon. The Constellation program was never funded sufficiently to deliver people to the moon in a reasonable time frame, Bolden said.
Bolden told the House Science and Technology Committee on Feb. 25 that he could offer only a "wishy-washy" answer about when people might reach Mars because of uncertainties about developing technology.
"It is my hope that the technology development that we do in terms of propulsion will have us physically building on a heavy-lift launch vehicle such that sometime between 2020 and 2030, we'll be on our way to destinations beyond lower Earth orbit," Bolden said.
The end of Constellation, coupled with the $6 billion increase for commercial flights, provoked criticism that the country would lose its leadership position in human space exploration.
Florida lawmakers, including Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, and Posey, have urged Obama to extend the shuttle as a means of keeping that leadership. But Bolden and other officials have opposed an extension, saying it would be unsafe and could cost as much as $200 million a month.
"The president's upcoming space meeting here in Florida provides a chance for meaningful progress," Kosmas said. "I am hopeful that he will articulate a clear vision for protecting the Space Coast's highly skilled work force and for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration."
Conference topics will include the implications of the new strategy for Florida, the nation and our ultimate activities in space, the White House said Saturday.
"I think he's going to articulate why his new plan is better for exploration and why it's better for Florida than the old plan," said James Muncy, a space policy consultant and a co-founder of Washington D.C.-based Space Frontier foundation. "I think a lot of people have asked 'Why doesn't he come out and say why he has proposed this budget?' and I think that's what he would be doing."
But Muncy said he doesn't expect Obama to offer more money or a restart of the Constellation program.
"Federal agencies are getting frozen, there's no more money, and we are in a deep recession," Muncy said. "Space is obviously important to Florida, but that doesn't mean we can throw tens of billions more at NASA because that program was broken. He's changing the program so that it's not broken. He will produce results for taxpayers."
Florida, for example, is slated to receive $1.9 billion over five years in additional funding for facility improvements and repairs to ensure that the Space Coast remains what the White House in its budget called a world-class space launch facility for decades to come.
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