WASHINGTON ? President Barack Obama will present a conferenceApril 15 in Florida on the country's future in space exploration, the WhiteHouse announced Saturday.
The president, top government officials andother space leaders will discuss the course the White House is charting for NASA andhuman spaceflight, according to an Obama administration official who askednot to be identified because details of the event are not final.
The conference will come as Congress weighsthe White House's 2011 budget proposal, which has been criticized for shuttingdown the Constellationprogram that was to replace the soon-to-retire shuttles.
Specific participants of the conference andthe location weren't announced, though Sen. Bill Nelson said he assumed itwould happen at or near Kennedy Space Center.
Nelson said Saturday that the conference isan opportunity for Obama to definitively set a Mars landing as a goal and toestablish a timetable to develop a powerful new rocket capable of makingflights to Mars or elsewhere beyond low Earth orbit.
"What I asked the president to do is toannounce the goal of Mars, which they have indicated that he will, and then toflesh that out while setting a reasonable time frame and then how they wouldproceed with the architecture," Nelson said. "If you're going toMars, you have to have a heavy-lift vehicle.
"The president has got to set thevision, and he's got to set the goal," said Nelson, D-Orlando. "Onlythe president can lead the manned space program."
U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, referringto a campaign stop Obama made to the Space Coast, said the president shouldsimply honor his commitment to Brevard County.
"While I welcome the conversation fromthe president, between now and then, he needs to seriously revise his NASAbudget," Posey said. "His current proposal falls far short of thepromises 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 todisappear as the shuttleprogram shuts down and the Constellation project -- which had been seen assomething of a job-saver -- never gets off the ground.
The heavy-lift rocket development programbeing sought by Nelson and others in Congress would require ongoing testflights over a period of years, which varying estimates say could mean anywherefrom a few hundred to 1,500 jobs here.
Any space jobs that could be saved would helpa challenging local economic situation. All told, nearly 23,000 jobs areconsidered in jeopardy on the Space Coast, local officials estimate. That'sbecause as many as 14,000 non-space jobs could be lost at regional businessesthat depend on a bustling space center.
The timing of the conference is good becauseit will occur before a key Senate science subcommittee votes on NASA's budgetin May, said Nelson, who heads the subcommittee.
Obama has proposed $6 billion over five yearsin new funding for NASA, for a total of $100 billion between 2011 and 2015.
He and NASA Administrator Charles Boldenpromoted the budget as taking a bold new direction, supporting commercialspaceflight and research at the International Space Station.
"The president and the NASAadministrator both believe that we have to be forward-thinking and aggressivein our pursuit of new technologies to take us beyond low Earth orbit, and thepresident's plan does this," the Obama administration official said.
At a Nelson-led hearing Feb. 24, Bolden saidMars remains the ultimate destination for human space explorers, along withpossible visits to asteroids or a return to the moon. The Constellation programwas never funded sufficiently to deliver people to the moon in a reasonabletime frame, Bolden said.
Bolden told the House Science and TechnologyCommittee on Feb. 25 that he could offer only a "wishy-washy" answerabout when peoplemight reach Mars because of uncertainties about developing technology.
The end of Constellation, coupled with the $6billion increase for commercial flights, provoked criticism that the countrywould lose its leadership position in human space exploration.
Florida lawmakers, including Rep. SuzanneKosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, and Posey, have urged Obama to extend the shuttleas a means of keeping that leadership. But Bolden and other officials haveopposed an extension, saying it would be unsafe and could cost as much as $200million a month.
"The president's upcoming space meetinghere in Florida provides a chance for meaningful progress," Kosmas said."I am hopeful that he will articulate a clear vision for protecting theSpace Coast's highly skilled work force and for maintaining America'sleadership in space exploration."
Conference topics will include theimplications of the new strategy for Florida, the nation and our ultimateactivities in space, the White House said Saturday.
"I think he's going to articulate whyhis new plan is better for exploration and why it's better for Florida than theold plan," said James Muncy, a space policy consultant and a co-founder ofWashington D.C.-based Space Frontier foundation. "I think a lot of peoplehave 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 tooffer 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 throwtens of billions more at NASA because that program was broken. He's changingthe program so that it's not broken. He will produce results fortaxpayers."
Florida, for example, is slated to receive$1.9 billion over five years in additional funding for facility improvementsand repairs to ensure that the Space Coast remains what the White House in itsbudget called a world-class space launch facility for decades to come.
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