WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. BarackObama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, sought to reassure Florida’s Space Coast voters that the challenges facing NASA as it prepares to retire the space shuttle are squarely on his radar.

Speaking Aug. 2 to a crowd of about 1,300 people at a community college in Titusville, Fla., near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Obama voiced support for extending the shuttle program by at least one flight as part of an effort to close the projected five-year gap in human space launches that threatens to put several thousand of the area’s residents out of work.

Obama also reversed a proposal made during his primary battle with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the Democratic party’s nomination to fund early childhood education programs in part by delaying NASA’s Constellation Program, the multibillion-dollar effort to field the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, Ares rockets and other hardware needed to mount a human lunar expedition around 2020.

“I know it’s still being reported that we were talking about delaying some aspects of the Constellation program to pay for our early education program,” he said. “I told my staff we’re going to find an entirely different offset because we’ve got to make sure that the money that’s going into NASA for basic research and development continues to go there.”

Obama’s shift on Constellation funding came on the heels of criticism leveled by his presumptive opponent in November, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that Obama “seems content to retreat from American exploration from space for a decade.”

McCain made his charge in a written statement released July 29 to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the legislation creating the U.S. space agency. In it, McCain also pledged “to make sure that the NASA Constellation program has the resources it needs so that we can begin a new era of human space exploration.”

Obama released a NASA statement of his own on the anniversary criticizing the White House and Congress for “fail[ing] to give NASA a robust, balanced and adequately funded mission.”

Obama, who was introduced to the crowd by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), again criticized the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush for not following through on his 2004 Vision for Space Exploration with the necessary financial and political support. “Today we have an administration that sets ambitious goals for NASA without giving NASA the support it needs to reach them,” Obama said. “As a result NASA has had to cut back on research – trim their program -which means that after the space shuttle shuts down in 2010 we are going to have to rely on Russian spacecraft to keep us in orbit.”

Obama suggested NASA would fare better under his watch.

“So let me be clear, we cannot cede our leadership in space. That’s why I am going to close the gap, ensure that our space program doesn’t suffer when the shuttle goes out of service,” he said. “We may extend an additional shuttle launch. We’re going to work with Bill Nelson to add at least one more flight beyond 2010, by continuing to support NASA funding, by speeding development of the shuttle’s successor, by making sure that all those who work in the space industry in Florida do not lose their jobs when the shuttle is retired because we can’t afford to lose their expertise.”

Mark Albrecht, a McCain supporter and former International Launch Services president who served as executive secretary of the now defunct White House National Space Council from 1989 to 1992, said Obama’s foremost challenge on the space front would be squaring his new views with budget realities.

“His prior statements on space at least had the virtue of fiscal clarity regardless of their disappointing content to space enthusiasts like myself,” Albrecht said. “If there were free choices I daresay any American would approve of more shuttle flights and seamless transition to an expansive space program. The devil is in the dollars. Meeting these new commitments and fulfilling other commitments in his domestic agenda will be a substantial challenge.”

John Logsdon, an Obama supporter and outgoing executive director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, said Obama presumably was talking about adding a shuttle flight to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the international space station, not keeping the shuttle flying well beyond 2010, something some Florida lawmakers, including Nelson, have suggested as a solution.

“He was very careful to say ‘at least one,’ not ‘more than one,’” Logsdon said. “Remember he was sitting there with Bill Nelson and Nelson has been putting a lot of pressure on him. There is growing agreement that that one flight doesn’t represent a big deal as long, as Griffin says, Congress gives NASA the money to do it. It doesn’t require buying any new hardware.”

The $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer was dropped from the shuttle manifest in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Members of Congress, including Nelson, have been pressuring NASA to add a shuttle flight to the 10 remaining flights in order to make good on the U.S. commitment to deliver the all-but-finished AMS. The White House Office of Management and Budget opposes the additional flight even though NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has told Congress the program has the hardware and quite possibly the time to fit the mission in before the end of 2010.

Obama also called during his Titusville speech for “a real vision for the next stage of space exploration.” To help formulate this vision, Obama said he seeks to re-establish a national aeronautics and space council. President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, was the last U.S. president to have a space council.

Albrecht said re-establishing a White House space council is a good idea, regardless of who is in office.

“I have thought for some time that something like a National Space Council was urgently needed for the U.S. space program,” Albrecht said. “For far too long, critical interagency issues have drifted or have been addressed in piecemeal, parochial and suboptimal ways. One only need to look at launch, commercial space policy, international cooperation and space research and development to find glaring examples of policies and programs that need integrated attention at the White House level. This is not an indictment of current and recent past space leadership, but a simple reflection of the fact that when it comes to tough interagency matters, there must be a forum for discussion and ultimately guidance from a ‘higher authority’ to resolve issues at a national level.”

As for the timing of Obama’s most substantive space pronouncements to date, Logsdon attributed it to the Obama campaign paying closer attention to second and third issues as it continues to absorb policy advisers from the now-disbanded Clinton campaign.

Bill Adkins, a Washington-based aerospace consultant who served as the Republican staff director on the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, said the presence of worried NASA contractors in such battleground states as Florida, Ohio and Virginia is another probable factor.

“Sen. Obama appears to understand more clearly now the role the Space Coast could play in the upcoming election,” Adkins said.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...