Congress and other stakeholders remain dubious about President Barack Obama’s plan for human space exploration, even after he unveiled a slightly revised and more detailed proposal.
The President laid out his plan in an April 15 speech that called on NASA to focus its efforts on developing new technology needed to carry humans into space rather than targeting a specific destination. This was the first time the President discussed his new plan for the agency’s human space exploration program since it was announced as part of the fiscal 2011 budget proposal released in February (C&EN, Feb. 15, page 16).
“Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach,” Obama said. “Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.”
The President’s remarks did little to sell the plan to Congress members, however, who remain skeptical. “As with most presidential proposals, Congress will not just rubber-stamp it,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is chair of the Senate Science & Space Subcommittee that oversees NASA. “So we’ll take what he’s saying to our committee, and then we’ll change some things.”
“The President’s announcement today, unfortunately, still will do nothing to ensure America’s superiority in human space exploration,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee, which has NASA oversight. “I agree with Neil Armstrong, Apollo astronauts, and many other supporters of our space program who believe that the President’s proposal would be devastating for the future of NASA.”
Hearings in the House and Senate are expected to probe deeper into the President’s plan, which focuses on technology development and increased involvement of the commercial sector in human space exploration. It also now includes development of an International Space Station rescue vehicle based on the Orion crew capsule that is part of the Constellation Program created by former president George W. Bush. That program was canceled under the original Obama plan. The revised plan also invests more than $3 billion to develop a heavy-lift rocket that can carry crew capsules and supplies into deep space.
According to Obama, human missions beyond the moon should be possible by 2025 with the first target likely being an asteroid. He expects human missions to orbit Mars and return to Earth by the mid-2030s and missions to land on Mars after that.
But like Congress, stakeholders still have questions. “While the steps outlined by President Obama are encouraging, many key issues and concerns remain with regard to the transition from the current programs to the proposed new exploration agenda,” according to a statement from the Coalition for Space Exploration, a group of space industry businesses and advocacy groups.