Earlier today, President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center, outlining the future of the US space program, including a $6 billion budget increase and plans to go to Mars. Here are highlights from his speech.
Constellation program definitely canceled
The President's speech focused on restating his position that the United States would not fall behind other nations, and that new initiatives would help to strengthen and reorganize NASA with a set of new goals, objectives and achievements that would keep the U.S. at the forefront. According to the President, he is 100% behind NASA and its future. In his administration's views, this is best done by reexamining the environment in which NASA operates, as well as the specific challenges that the agency faces. The loss of the shuttle, competition from other nations, US assistance with the ISS and the current economy are all contributing factors, and with that in mind, several changes were in order.
He spoke about the canceled Constellation "humans on the Moon" program, noting that independent committees found that the project was far over budget and behind schedule, and that its continuation would cut deeply into spending for other initiatives, hurting the space program overall. While the future of spaceflight and the U.S.'s future in spaceflight is in question even beyond the Constellation program, his speech did go towards looking at how the US should proceed.
Despite speculation, there was no indication that the Administration is moving to reimplement specific elements of the Constellation program. NASA will, however, continue to operate the Orion capsule as an escape vehicle.
A heavy lift rocket for 2015, plus research funds
Obama did announce that the U.S would begin designs for a heavy-lift rocket that we would begin building by 2015 - two years in advance of what had been planned for Constellation - which would be used for deep space exploration and travel beyond the moon. Obama specifically noted that NASA would revise older models. (This could mean that the Ares-1 rocket would be used in part for these plans.) Also in the plans for the future are major new initiatives for research into new means of propulsion, ships for longer trips, as well as investments to support such programs, with the eye towards adding new jobs to the Florida area. (The president promised 40 million dollars in economic development money for Florida to offset job loss from the Space Shuttle program shutdown.)
Shooting for Mars and the Asteroid Belt
Obama also set out several goals for these programs, bypassing the Moon and saying that he wanted to send astronauts to asteroids for the first time, and by 2030, to Mars itself. While his speech didn't resonate as President Kennedy's 1961 speech before a joint session of Congress, it did set forth a very ambitious agenda, one that will likely become the cornerstone of future space ambitions: the U.S. will look beyond past achievements, and look towards building upon its accomplishments of the past by looking to other planets, scientific endeavors and technology to remain ahead of the rest of the planet.
He also refuted the criticism that the using private contractors as a major component of U.S. space ambitions would weaken the country's lead in space, noting that private industry has always had a major part in NASA's history, as far back as the Mercury program that launched the first people into space.
One of the main points that he also addressed was looking to implement a strategy for NASA, one that has long-term ambitions towards remaining in space - the aforementioned trips to asteroids, Mars, and no matter what he says, a return to the Moon. The recognition of the strategies that worked for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs is a good one, as well as the recognition that technology needs to be invented, tested and put into place as part of a larger plan. Obama, despite criticism to the contrary, seems to have ambitions to keep the United States in the forefront of reaching orbit.
Short term goals
While he outlined some fairly impressive goals, he left unspoken the short term goals for NASA reaching space, particularly when the Space Shuttle would be decommissioned (a decision, he noted, that was made 6 years ago, not 6 months ago), and when US astronauts would be put into orbit. Currently, the plan will be to pay other countries to bring astronauts into space, which seems to be the major point of concern for most following the issue. The President did note in passing the Falcon 9 rocket, built by Elon Musk's SpaceX company, which could potentially help in the short term. He did speak to major new projects to be funded to develop a plan for the Florida region to help spur growth of a space transit industry, something that he gave a concrete date for: August 15th. The intent here is to help spur the growth of the supporting industry for some of these major plans for the upcoming future.
Obama noted that his new budget for NASA would create 2500 new jobs, and "potentially 10 thousand more jobs across the country."
The President signed off by noting that he wanted to see the advances in space become something greater than the achievements of the Apollo program, something that will use Apollo as a stepping off point: "I chose to believe that is the beginning."