NASA maps plans for revamped U.S. space program

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA fleshed out plans on Thursday for a revamped U.S. space program that will focus initially on developing technology needed to send people to Mars.

The new program also aims to promote the development of commercial space taxi services and to ring the planet with satellites to monitor climate change.

The plans come as NASA prepares to end its space shuttle program later this year, which is expected to cost thousands of contracting jobs tied to the space program.

NASA officials said work on the new program would be spread out across the agency’s 10 field centers, with the Johnson Space Center in Houston taking responsibility for a $6 billion, five-year program to oversee technology demonstrations.

The Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be in charge of a $5.8 billion, five-year effort to help private companies develop orbital transportation services.

Centers in Maryland, California and Ohio will manage an expanded Earth-observation campaign to keep tabs on climate change and its impact.

“This is step one, to identify programs that are going to be funded by this budget,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said during a conference call with reporters.

President Barack Obama has proposed adding $2 billion to NASA’s $18 billion annual budget for the year beginning October 1, an increase Bolden said should result in more jobs.

“We’re expanding the amount of programs that we have so that we can try to put people to work who are interested in being part of the space program,” Bolden said.

“Are we going to be able to employ everybody that used to work in shuttle? No, we’re not, but that was never a vision,” he said.

“A very serious and real concern for everyone is the jobs, but this is what we call progress. Unfortunately, if you look at every area of technology in this country, as you advance, there are fewer and fewer manual-type jobs.”


NASA is retiring its three space shuttles in the fall due to cost and safety concerns after three more missions to finish outfitting the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that has been under construction since 1998.

The new U.S. program extends the life of the space station until at least 2020. But thousands of contract employees in Florida alone are expected to lose their jobs due to the end of the shuttle program. Obama’s budget also cancels the Bush-era space exploration initiative known as Constellation, which aimed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. An independent review determined the $108 billion program was severely underfunded, with no hope of reaching its goals.

Elements of the Constellation will likely be incorporated into the new programs, including development of heavy-lift rockets to send people, robots and cargo to asteroids, Mars and other destinations in the solar system, Bolden said.

Obama plans to discuss his proposal during an invitation-only conference at or near the Kennedy Space Center next Thursday.

Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney