Launching Pad: Obama Gives Space Plans Some Gravity
President Obama visited Cape Canaveral to address his critics and clarify his canceling of the Constellation program meant to send Americans back to the moon, and his vision for the future of space exploration.
Barack Obama the salesman has spent much of his presidency spinning historic opportunity out of challenge, hard-selling his visions for health care, nuclear disarmament and a green economy.
Thursday, he faced one of his toughest conceptual pitches: recasting what looks to many like the end of American manned space flight — at least for the indefinite future — as a beginning to something bigger.
Famous astronauts, space bloggers and senators with high-tech constituents to look out for have all balked at Obama's plan, announced in February, to scrap the Constellation program to return to the moon. NASA officials have been quick to point out that the administration is actually increasing the budget at the same time, reinvesting in long-underfunded basic research and breakthrough technology that could one day take American astronauts much farther.
But, in a problem of public imagination, the new plan involves sacrificing something tangible in the near term — an American, again, on the moon — for the promise of a payoff we can't see.
A nonpartisan committee of experts concluded in February that the Constellation program, initiated under President George W. Bush, was "fundamentally unexecutable." It was behind schedule and over-budget — and all to relive a milestone the U.S. first knocked off 40 years ago.
In canceling the project, the administration rolled out "a Bold New Approach for Space Exploration and Discovery," a plan with as many adjectives and exclamation points as a new Apple iProduct launch. NASA will get a $6 billion boost in funding over the next five years. The plan will extend the life of the international space station and encourage fledgling commercial space companies to compete for the right to take American astronauts there. It will reinvigorate NASA's Earth science program to improve our understanding of problems like climate change. And it will invest in "cutting-edge" technologies and new robotic exploration — "with robots leading the way for later human explorers."
The problem, though, is that in the absence of Constellation, the plan doesn't specify exactly where those human explorers will go and when they'll leave.
"While the administration's intentions for getting to low-Earth orbit (rely on commercial launch vehicles) are clear, how human exploration is to be conducted beyond low-Earth orbit is not," Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said in an e-mail.
Or, as several former astronauts and NASA officials put it in an open letter to Obama this week, his vision is a "misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future."
And so the president turned up Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to finally defend his vision with a speech that included many of the rhetorical hallmarks of his more combative style before Congress.
"Let me start by being extremely clear," he said, flagging as he often does the portion of his comments where he debunks misinformation. "I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future, because broadening our capability in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine."
He turned to those who've had "harsh words," spelled out job-creation benefits "despite some reports to the contrary," and reminded the audience that he was working with some decisions "made six years ago, not six months ago."
"I understand that some believe we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned," he said. "But I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we've been there before, Buzz [Aldrin] has been there, there's a lot more of space to explore, a lot more to learn."
The alternate option, he vowed, will take an astronaut to Mars, eventually.
"I expect to be around to see it," he said, although that promise sounded a little less inspiring than, "We choose to go to the moon this decade."
Obama evoked that original history-making mission in setting up the climax to his pitch.
"The question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something, or the end of something," he said. "I chose to believe it was only the beginning."
Of course, the other question is: Will people believe him?