Bolden: Resources in Obama’s Plan To Take Us ‘From Concepts to Flight’

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Two days before U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to provide details on his proposed new agenda for the nation’s space program, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the president will underscore his commitment to space exploration but offered scant details of the speech Obama is expected to deliver April 15 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Speaking to an audience of industry executives and government officials at the 26th National Space Symposium here April 13, Bolden defended the president’s plan to end the Moon-bound Constellation program in favor of funding privately developed crew capsules for use in low Earth orbit. He said that despite Obama’s “new philosophy and approach,” the president supports NASA’s fundamental goal of advancing human presence in space.

“[Obama] made the change that we believe is needed to set NASA on a sustainable course into the solar system,” Bolden said, adding that the president’s proposal to increase NASA’s top-line spending by $275 million next year, followed by better-than-inflation boosts through 2014, is a vote of confidence for the agency. “The increased funding proposed in NASA’s fiscal year 2011 budget will build a steady cadence of success, a crescendo that will leverage the multinational investment we and our partners have made in the international space station, demonstrate new capabilities required for human exploration in the future and increase our knowledge of the solar system as we send numerous new probes to future human exploration targets.”

Obama’s 2011 spending proposal has been hotly contested on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan criticism is focused on NASA’s lack of a clearly defined deep-space destination and development of a new heavy-lift launcher to get there.

Although Bolden did not address specific destinations or timelines for sending humans to visit them, he described Mars as an “especially compelling target” for future human exploration. With that eventual destination in mind, Bolden said, NASA will develop new technologies to enable human expansion across the solar system, including advanced propulsion systems, deep-space habitats, on-orbit propellant depots and the capability to manufacture oxygen, water and fuel on other planets.

“These are some of the key technologies that we need,” he said. “It’s time to take these ideas from concepts to flight. The president has given us the resources to achieve these goals.”

Bolden said NASA’s plan for future exploration is beginning to take shape within the agency, including plans to conduct ground and space demonstrations that will lead to incremental development of new technologies.

“We want to mature emerging technologies to flight-readiness levels and get them there with a sense of urgency,” he said. “We want to send out precursor flights to the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, Mars or other destinations.”

Bolden said these robotic precursors would allow NASA to perfect concepts for precision landings on distant heavenly bodies and refine systems for resource prospecting and production “in order to begin reliable autonomous operations prior to human arrival.”

Bolden said NASA will demonstrate one such robotic precursor capability on the international space station in the coming months. Dubbed Robonaut 2, the humanoid robot designed to work side by side with people is a joint development effort led jointly by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and General Motors Corp. of Detroit.

“This is just one of the capabilities that NASA will demonstrate on its pathway to sustainable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” he said.

NASA’s planning teams are laying out the details of a new exploration strategy, Bolden said, adding that the agency expects to release additional details on specific missions over the next few months.

“Through a rigorous systems engineering process, the agency will ensure that our technology development, robotic missions, human research and national infrastructure are aligned to accomplish the United States’ goals in human exploration,” Bolden said. “This activity will conduct mission analysis and spacecraft design studies to define scenarios for reaching our exploration destinations and determining their proper sequence.”