President Obama to Give 'Major Space Policy Speech' In Florida
U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by members of Congress and middle school children, waves as he talks on the phone from the Roosevelt Room of the White House to astronauts on the International Space Station, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 in Washington.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? President Barack Obama will visit NASA?s Florida spaceport today to hold a much-anticipated summit on his vision for the future of America?s space exploration program.

Space experts, scientists and members of Congress are expected to attend the space summit here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center, which will be followed by a presentation by the space agency?s chief Charles Bolden and other officials.

?I think I can share that he actually plans to have some private moments with the members who will be there for the conference,? Bolden told reporters last week of the President?s intentions. ?He then plans to deliver a major space policy speech.?

That speech, Bolden hopes, will convince allies and critics alike that President Obama is ?dedicated to exploration and human spaceflight.? [Fact sheet on Obama?s space plan.]

Space plan under fire

President Obama?s space plan has been under fire since its announcement in February, when the president rolled out a $19 billion NASA budget request for 2011 that included the cancellation of the agency?s Constellation program in charge of developing new Orion spacecraft and the Ares rockets designed to launch them into space.

Critics blasted the plan for not stating a timetable or destination for human spaceflight, as well as for shifting American manned spacecraft development from NASA to commercial companies. The president?s 2011 budget would increase NASA funding and set aside $6 billion to spur commercial spacecraft development.

But documents released this week by the White House and NASA stated that President Obama will resurrect the Orion spacecraft ? a capsule-based vehicle smaller than the shuttle ? for a very different use than its intended design, as well as and plans for a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching spacecraft on more ambitious flights out to the moon, asteroids or Mars.?

?Frankly, it?s more specific than I thought he would offer, and the specifics there are for the better,? said space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at the Space Policy Institute within the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C..

Instead of an Orion spacecraft built to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and make longer treks to the moon, the new plan would build a slimmed-down version of the space capsule. It would be launched only to serve as an escape ship in the unlikely event of an emergency.

?Keeping Orion alive in a slimmed-down form is, I think, a reasonable thing to do since we were very far on the basic design,? Logsdon told SPACE.com.

Heavy-lift rocket in the works

The President?s new plan includes a commitment to begin developing a heavy-lift rocket ? a massive booster reserved for launching huge payloads ? in 2015.

?This new rocket would eventually lift future deep-space spacecraft to enable humans to expand our reach toward Mars and the rest of the Solar System,? White House officials said in a space plan fact sheet.

Logsdon said the commitment to building a heavy-lift rocket is a signal that the president is serious about space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, where NASA has been confined to since the end of the Apollo moon missions in 1973.

?I think that?s a very positive thing,? Logsdon said.

The president is also expected to set aside an additional $6 billion to NASA over the next five years to boost the pace of technology development, as well as unmanned and manned expeditions into space. One goal is to prepare the Orion spacecraft for debut flights years earlier than under the Constellation program.

Some 2,500 more jobs than under NASA?s previous plan would be created around the Kennedy Space Center ? one of the centers hardest hit with the shuttle?s looming retirement and loss of Constellation ? by 2012, according to a White House statement. About 10,000 more jobs would be created across the country through the development of commercial crew and cargo delivery spacecraft to service the International Space Station, it added.

NASA?s original Constellation program aimed at retiring the space shuttle fleet in late 2010 and replacing it with Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets by 2015. But an independent review by a White House committee found the program behind schedule and underfunded to accomplish its end-goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Obama?s space plan still includes retiring NASA?s shuttle fleet, though adds some funding to allow flights between September and December 2010 if there are slight delays.

NASA plans to fly just four more shuttle missions ? one of which is under way now ? before retiring the shuttle fleet later this year.

The seven astronauts aboard NASA?s space shuttle Discovery, which is delivering supplies to the International Space Station?s six-person crew, said Wednesday that they were not sure they will have a chance to tune in today for the president?s speech. But, they added, a change at NASA will be vital ? if difficult ? in order to move the program forward into the future.

?Life is full of changes and change is hard. We know that from many different aspects of all our lives,? Discovery astronaut Clayton Anderson told reporters during a space-to-ground interview this week. ?New parents find that change is a little tough in the beginning, but eventually they figure it out. That's what we'll do with NASA and the space program?I have no idea what real changes are coming.?