WASHINGTON — Pledging to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his decision to pull the plug on NASA’s proposed return to the Moon, saying the new course he is setting for the U.S. space agency promises to take people beyond Earth orbit farther and faster than the old plan.
“I understand that some believe we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned,” Obama told an invitation-only audience in an April 15 speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here. We’ve been there before. … There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach and operate at a series of increasingly demanding targets while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that’s what this strategy does. And that’s how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last.”
Obama’s 2011 budget request, submitted to Congress in February, proposes the cancellation of the Moon-bound Constellation program in favor of extending NASA’s support of the international space station through at least 2020 and investing in “game-changing” technologies aimed at speeding the human and robotic exploration of deep space. Obama’s initiative also puts a strong emphasis on relying on an emerging commercial space sector for launching astronauts and their gear to the international space station.
Obama said that under his plan, U.S. astronauts will venture beyond Earth’s orbit in 2025, starting with a crewed mission to an asteroid.
“Early in the next decade a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” he said. “And by 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.”
Obama also gave a specific timeline for embarking on human expeditions to Mars.
“By the mid-2030s I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,” Obama said. “And a landing on Mars will follow, and I expect to be around to see it.”
Turning to jobs, Obama said his plan “will add more than 2,500 jobs along the [Florida] Space Coast in the next two years compared to the plan under the previous administration” and more than 10,000 jobs nationwide. He also said he has asked for a plan by Aug. 15 for a $40 million initiative for economic growth and job creation in areas of Florida expected to be hard hit by the looming retirement of the space shuttle.
Some key details of the president’s address were released by the White House April 13, including a decision to continue development of a stripped-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle to serve as a crew lifeboat at the international space station. The White House also said NASA will select by 2015 a design for a heavy-lift launcher that most experts agree is necessary for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.