White House Defends Space Plan from Astronaut Critics
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Wednesday defended President Barack Obama's new space policy after Apollo 11 hero Neil Armstrong and other astronauts called it a step-down that would make NASA's program dependent on Russian goodwill.
Obama will visit Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday to lay out revisions to the strategy, which has been under attack since it was unveiled by the US space agency in March.
The president will announce that he wants to accelerate development of a large, heavy-lift rocket to carry astronauts beyond low-earth orbit and he will set orbiting Mars as an eventual goal for the space program.
But he is still cancelling the Constellation program, designed by the previous Bush administration to return Americans to the moon. It was behind schedule and had cost $19 billion.
Obama would salvage from Constellation a crew capsule called Orion, which was to carry astronauts to the moon but will serve instead as an emergency escape vehicle at the International Space Station. That would free American astronauts from having to rely on Russia's Soyuz capsule to return to Earth in an emergency.
The Obama administration would allocate $6 billion to support private companies in developing space rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Armstrong, who became the first man to step on the Moon as part of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, complained in a letter this week that America's only path to low-earth orbit and the International Space Station would be tied to an agreement with Russia to temporarily purchase space on the Soyuz rocket.
"The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president's proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope," Armstrong wrote.
He was joined by astronauts James Lovell of the Apollo 13 mission and Eugene Cernan of the Apollo 17 mission.
Asked about the criticism, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said an independent commission had determined the Constellation program was "years behind schedule, massively over-budget, that we weren't going to meet the timeframe of going to the Moon under any circumstance."
The White House found an ally in Armstrong's No. 2 on the trip to the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, who said in a statement that he backed Obama's policy.
"I continue to be excited about the development of commercial capabilities to send humans into low-earth orbit and what this could ultimately mean in terms of allowing others to experience the transformative power of spaceflight," Aldrin wrote.
The Obama administration estimates the new plan would create an estimated 2,500 jobs in the Cape Canaveral area, which stands to lose several thousand jobs when the space shuttle program is retired in the next year or so.
Space is a powerful job creator in the important electoral state of Florida as well as in Texas and Alabama, and lawmakers worried about job losses there will be listening closely to what the president says.
(Editing by Paul Simao)