Obama calls for NASA to focus on trips to Mars and beyond

President defends plan to re-focus NASA, and scrap project to return humans to the moon

President Barack Obama said yesterday that if Congress agrees to fund his plans for NASA, the space agency would forgo a manned return to the moon to instead focus on sending astronauts to Mars and further into the solar system.

Obama spoke to a crowd of about 200 people at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday in an effort to counter criticism that his 2011 federal budget plan would cut NASA's Constellation program that would return humans to the moon.

"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit," Obama told the gathering. "By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys will allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space.

"We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it," Obama added.

Obama has come under heavy criticism for the plan to scrap NASA's earlier plan to return humans to the moon by 2020. Instead, Obama's budget plan calls for NASA to halt internal efforts to build next generation spacecraft and instead hire commercial companies to build space taxis.

The budget would have NASA concentrate on developing next generation engines for the commercially built spacecraft, in-space fuel depots and robots.

Obama yesterday backtracked a bit on the initial budget plan, announcing that his proposal now calls for NASA to proceed with part of the Constellation program -- developing a version of the Orion crew capsule for use as an emergency escape craft for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Obama also noted that his budget plan would have NASA build a heavy-lift rocket to run craft that would transport astronauts to Mars and then deeper into space.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has called Obama's plan "misguided," and contended that it's wasting time and money, and killing off American jobs.

"The administration's plan is laughable, but I can't find much humor in it when the consequences to space exploration and American workers during tough economic times are so dire," Hatch said in a statement. "President John F. Kennedy would be rolling over in his grave. This decision reeks of politics, not common sense."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla, a former NASA astronaut, is optimistic that Obama's plan will be successful. Nelson, chairman of the Senate's Science and Space Subcommittee that oversees NASA, said he thinks Obama is moving in the right direction.

Obama emphasized that the country cannot eliminate the space program.

"Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach," Obama said.

"Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity's reach in space -- we will strengthen America's leadership here on Earth," he added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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