Air Force One touched down at 1:24 p.m. (EDT) today at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) carrying President Barack Obama and dignitaries for a short visit to explain and push his vision of NASA's transformation. At the same time he came to reassure KSC workers that there would be some jobs and retraining money available. After a brief visit around KSC including a guided tour by SpaceX founder Elon Musk of his private company's facilities and launch pad where the Falcon 9 awaits its maiden voyage next month, the President then traveled to the Operations and Checkout building to speak to the highly vetted audience.
The President wanted everyone to understand that in these challenging economic times that NASA was one of the few agencies that received an increase in funding, $6 billion over 5 years in his recent budget, while will most other government agencies had their budgets frozen.
One of the key complaints against the 2011 NASA budget was the cancellation of the Orion Crew Capsule. Obama's plan will revive Orion in a scaled back configuration that would be used as an emergency rescue vehicle for the International Space Station. The rationale for this is to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign spacecraft such as the Russian Soyuz. The Orion Capsule will part of the technological foundation to be used in future deep space missions.
"What I hope is that everyone will take a look at what we are planning," Obama said. "No one is more committed to the exploration of space than I am."
His remarks added further detail to his proposed plan and corrected rumors that were would be additional shuttle flights after the three which are currently scheduled. A date for manned missions beyond the moon was announced as taking place by 2025 with an initial mission to an asteroid. The President also addressed the question of whether or not the moon will be a destination in this new plan, it will not be, the President stated that NASA had already traveled there and that we needed to push on, this remark drew weak applause from the crowd.
"People have focused on what the budget proposal doesn't do and have missed an incredible story on the extension and utilization of the International Space Station, new investment in R&D, a greater commitment to studying Earth, and developing the technology needed for a 21st Century space program." NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, Robert Jacobs said regarding the President's new direction for the space program.
The new plan has a stated objective for NASA's manned space program - the planet Mars - and that by the mid 2030's a human mission to orbit Mars can be attempted. However, no timetable was given as to when the space agency should land astronauts on the red planet.
The plan detailed by the President will not resurrect either the man-rated Ares-1 or the Ares-V heavy lift rocket. Instead, the President has decided to defer the decision on which heavy lift rocket NASA will use until 2015 at which point the chosen design will be built. However the delay in selecting a heavy lift vehicle troubles some experts within the industry.
"I do not understand why it will take five years just to decide what type of heavy lift vehicle we want to pursue, look at past studies, this has been studied to death, " said Robert Springer an astronaut that has flown twice on the space shuttle who summed up his view by using part of Obama's election mantra. "This isn't change for the good, it is simply spin."
Several Apollo astronauts including some moon walkers have openly expressed their concern and dismay at Obama's plan. Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, Jim Lovell Commander of Apollo 13 and Eugene Cernan the commander of Apollo 17 and currently the last man to have walked on the moon have stated openly that they are against the Obama plan and feel that it will relegate America's manned space program to a level of 'mediocrity.' However, not all Apollo astronauts agree, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, fresh off his stint on 'Dancing with the Stars' has expressed his support for the Obama plan.
Obama closed his speech by talking directly to the KSC workers and their job prospects. He stated that the cancellation of the Shuttle Program was decided six years ago and that his plan would create 2500 new jobs in Florida. He also stated that it was true some Floridians would lose their jobs as the Shuttle program winds down today he announced a $40 million initiative to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation. The plan would help retrain some of the KSC workforce to work in new space jobs either at KSC or in the private sector.
Edited by Marc Boucher