Obama to present new vision for US space travel

WASHINGTON, April 15, 2010 (AFP) - President Barack Obama travels to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday in a bid to soothe critics of his plan to scrap an over-budget Moon launch program and reshape NASA's future.

Critics, included the first man on the Moon Neil Armstrong, were angered by Obama's decision earlier this year to scrap the bloated and behind-schedule Constellation program, which had aimed to plant a new US flag on the Moon.

In a nod to critics who says the new approach will costs jobs, Obama will now retain and scale down a portion of the Constellation project, the Orion capsule.

The White House says it will boost NASA's budget by six billion dollars over five years and will create 2,500 jobs in Florida by 2012.

The new plan will mean more jobs, greater investment in innovation, "more astronaut time in space, more rockets launching sooner, and a more ambitious and sustainable space program," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday.

But while the White House was selling the new plan as more ambitious and bolder than the US president's earlier proposals unveiled in February, critics said that it was just retreading old ground.

The new vision, outlined in a three-page document posted on the White House website, includes reaching "a sequence of deep-space destinations" and "progressing step-by-step until we are able to reach Mars."

Proposals Obama announced in February called for axing the Constellation program and for space launches to be taken over by private industry after the shuttle program is retired this year. NASA would concentrate on research.

Gibbs said that an independent commission set up to study Constellation found "that the idea of going to the moon under the timetable prescribed was un-executable."

Obama's "new vision for NASA" lifts US space ambitions beyond the moon, committing to decide by 2015 on "the specific heavy-lift rocket" needed to send astronauts to asteroids, the moon, and eventually to Mars itself.

But Republican lawmaker Bill Posey, who represents the part of Florida known as the Space Coast where the Kennedy Space Center is located, dismissed the new plan as "very vague" and "underwhelming."

"It's not a new plan. It's essentially the same plan that was laid out in February and he just put a new cover sheet on it with a couple of footnotes," Posey told AFP.

The end of the shuttle's life is expected to result in the loss of some 9,000 jobs at the Kennedy Space Center, or nearly 60 percent of the staff and would require the United States to hitch lifts into space on Russian spacecraft until a new rocket is developed.

Lawmakers and astronauts have criticized the proposal to ground the shuttle and chop Constellation, saying the combined moves would cost too many jobs in an already frail economy and would bump the United States from its position of leader in space exploration.

Apollo 11 hero Armstrong lashed out at Obama on Tuesday calling the plan to end the Constellation program "devastating."

Armstrong was one of three former astronauts who signed an open letter to the president ahead of his visit to Florida.

"For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature," the astronauts said.

However another NASA hero, Buzz Aldrin, supports Obama's plan.

The Obama strategy does little to bridge the gap at the end of the shuttle's life, said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

The new, so-called "bolder" plan makes only minor changes to the earlier plans, Logsdon said.

And yet Obama's trip to Florida to present his vision was "a positive step.

"It's a big deal, a commitment," Logsdon said.

Melissa Stains, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Cocoa Beach, just south of Kennedy Space Center, said she would "wait and see."

But on first impression, the president's new plan was "more positive than it was before," she said.

One powerful critic of Obama's plan was Senator Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the subcommittee that has oversight of NASA spending.

"This new plan does not represent an advancement in policy or an improvement upon the Constellation program, but a continued abdication of America's leadership in space," Shelby said in a statement Wednesday.

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