Obama Facing Uprising Over New NASA Strategy
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – US President Barack Obama is trying to tamp down an uprising in politically vital Florida against a new strategy for NASA that has rankled space veterans and lawmakers and sparked fears of job losses.
Obama's decision to kill NASA's Constellation program to launch astronauts into orbit and return Americans to the Moon has prompted soul-searching on whether the United States is prepared to cede a pre-eminent space role to Russia and China.
"As with all great human achievements, our commitment to space must be renewed and encouraged or we will surely be surpassed by other nations who are presently challenging our leadership in space," Democratic and Republican members of the US Congress from Florida wrote to Obama last week.
Obama's move for a greater private sector role in space launches – as he seeks to keep ballooning federal deficits in check – has generated fears of job losses among thousands of NASA employees who provide an important economic base in Florida, a state usually crucial in presidential elections.
Employees at major space complexes in Alabama and Texas are also worried.
It is making for a potentially explosive environment when Obama travels to the Cape Canaveral area on April 15 to host a space conference with top officials and leaders in the field.
"What reception will they get? Not good," said Keith Cowing, editor of nasawatch.com, a website that closely monitors the US space agency. "It's a gutsy move. It's Daniel in the Lion's Den."
Obama, in his February 1 budget proposal, planned to increase NASA's overall funding to $19 billion in 2011 with an emphasis on science and less spent on space exploration.
He would cancel the Constellation program's Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets, after $9 billion and five years of tests. Constellation is aimed at returning astronauts to the moon in the 2020s to clear the way for a Mars mission.
Instead, Obama would spend $6 billion a year for five years to support commercial spacecraft development and pursue new technologies to explore the solar system in what the White House called "a more effective and affordable way."
Various members of the far-flung US space community have been troubled by the change, such as former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who struggled to get more funding for Constellation from the previous administration of President George W Bush and believes Obama should stick with it.
"There's a larger issue here," Griffin said. "Does the United States want to have a real space program? Do we actually think we can have a robust, exciting, world-leading space program by hiring private enterprise to furnish it?"
But John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said he believed it was time for the private sector to get more involved in space.
"There's no reason to think that the technical talent in the private sector, combined with a significant degree of NASA engagement, cannot come up with a good solution," he said.
The debate to some extent has riven the space community. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, supports the change in direction while Harrison Schmitt, one of the last on the lunar surface, opposes it.
NASA already has contracts with Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX and other firms are developing spaceships that can carry passengers to orbit and back.
The shuttle system still has four more flights to get crews and hardware to the International Space Station before the craft are retired. After that, NASA will be without a heavy-lift capability for a period of time.
This means Americans would have to pay to ride on Russian rockets to get into orbit, a stark turn of events after the pivotal battle the United States and the Soviet Union fought to outdo each other in the space race.
To maintain a lift capability, Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson wants the administration to add one shuttle flight and develop the Ares rockets that are part of the Constellation program.
Ultimately, Nelson believes Obama needs to give the United States a goal for its space program and hopes it will be a mission to Mars.
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by John O'Callaghan)