CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? President Barack Obama will visitNASA?s Florida spaceport today to hold a much-anticipated summit on his visionfor the future of America?s space exploration program.
Space experts, scientists and members of Congress areexpected to attendthe space summit here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center, whichwill be followed by a presentation by the space agency?s chief Charles Boldenand other officials.
?I think I can share that he actually plans to have someprivate moments with the members who will be there for the conference,? Boldentold reporters last week of the President?s intentions. ?He then plans todeliver a major space policy speech.?
That speech, Bolden hopes, will convince allies andcritics alike that President Obama is ?dedicated to exploration and humanspaceflight.? [Factsheet on Obama?s space plan.]
Space plan under fire
President Obama?s space plan has been under fire sinceits announcement in February, when the president rolled out a $19 billion NASAbudget request for 2011 that included the cancellation of the agency?sConstellation program in charge of developing new Orion spacecraft and the Aresrockets designed to launch them into space.
Critics blasted the plan for not stating a timetable ordestination for human spaceflight, as well as for shifting American mannedspacecraft development from NASA to commercial companies. The president?s 2011budget would increase NASA funding and set aside $6 billion to spur commercialspacecraft development.
But documents released this week by the White House andNASA stated that PresidentObama will resurrect the Orion spacecraft ? acapsule-based vehicle smaller than the shuttle ? for a very different use thanits intended design, as well as and plans for a heavy-lift rocket capable oflaunching spacecraft on more ambitious flights out to the moon, asteroids orMars.?
?Frankly, it?s more specific than I thought he wouldoffer, and the specifics there are for the better,? said space policy expertJohn Logsdon, professor emeritus of Political Science and International Affairsat the Space Policy Institute within the Elliott School of InternationalAffairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C..
Instead of an Orion spacecraft built to ferry astronautsto the International Space Station and make longer treks to the moon, the newplan would build a slimmed-down version of the space capsule. It would belaunched 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,? Logsdontold SPACE.com.
Heavy-lift rocket in the works
The President?s new plan includes a commitment to begindeveloping a heavy-lift rocket ? a massive booster reserved for launching hugepayloads ? in 2015.
?This new rocket would eventually lift future deep-spacespacecraft to enable humans to expand our reach toward Mars and the rest of theSolar System,? White House officials said in a space plan fact sheet.
Logsdon said the commitment to building a heavy-liftrocket is a signal that the president is serious about space exploration beyondlow-Earth orbit, where NASA has been confined to since the end of the Apollomoon 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 preparethe Orion spacecraft for debut flights years earlier than under theConstellation program.
Some 2,500 more jobs than under NASA?s previous plan wouldbe created around the Kennedy Space Center ? oneof the centers hardest hit with the shuttle?s looming retirementand loss of Constellation ? by 2012, according to a White House statement.About 10,000 more jobs would be created across the country through thedevelopment of commercial crew and cargo delivery spacecraft to service theInternational Space Station, it added.
NASA?s original Constellation program aimed at retiringthe space shuttle fleet in late 2010 and replacing it with Orion spacecraft andAres rockets by 2015. But an independent review by a White House committeefound the program behind schedule and underfunded to accomplish its end-goal ofreturning astronauts to the moon by 2020.
Obama?s space plan still includes retiring NASA?s shuttlefleet, though adds some funding to allow flights between September and December2010 if there are slight delays.
NASA plans to fly just four more shuttle missions ? oneof which is under way now ? before retiring the shuttle fleet later this year.
The seven astronauts aboard NASA?s space shuttleDiscovery, which is delivering supplies to the International Space Station?ssix-person crew, said Wednesday that they were not sure they will have a chanceto tune in today for the president?s speech. But, they added, a changeat NASA will be vital ? if difficult ? in order to move theprogram forward into the future.
?Life is full of changes and change is hard. We know thatfrom many different aspects of all our lives,? Discovery astronaut ClaytonAnderson told reporters during a space-to-ground interview this week. ?Newparents find that change is a little tough in the beginning, but eventuallythey figure it out. That's what we'll do with NASA and the space program?I haveno idea what real changes are coming.?