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Q+A: Pros, cons of Obama space plan fire up debate

(Reuters) - President Obama’s revamped plans for the U.S. human space program include canceling a return to the moon and developing and hiring commercial space taxis to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Here are questions and answers about some of the issues surrounding the new plan:

WHY IS THE U.S. SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM BEING RETIRED?

For safety and cost concerns. Investigators looking into the fatal 2003 shuttle Columbia accident recommended the fleet be retired or recertified once its primary job of finishing the International Space Station was completed.

The shuttles cannot travel beyond low-Earth orbit and cost the government about $200 million a month to maintain and fly.

HOW WILL ASTRONAUTS GET TO THE SPACE STATION?

With the shuttles to be retired after three more flights, NASA has left crew transportation in the hands of Russia, the only other country besides China that flies people in orbit.

China is not a part of the space station partnership.

Russia charges the United States $51 million a seat on its Soyuz capsules. The price increases to $55 million in 2013.

Part of Obama’s plan is to develop commercial U.S. space taxis to avoid reliance on Russia.

SpaceX, owned and operated by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, already holds NASA contracts worth nearly $1.9 billion to develop and fly Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules for space station cargo resupply missions.

Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp has NASA contracts of similar value for its Taurus II-Cygnus system, which is scheduled to debut next year.

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE NOW SCRAPPED BUSH-ERA PLAN TO

RETURN ASTRONAUTS TO THE MOON?

A team of independent experts who reviewed the so-called Constellation program at the Obama administration’s behest concluded that an extra $3 billion a year was needed to get it back on track to land astronauts on the moon by the mid-2020s.

However, even some critics who wanted the United States to focus on Mars rather than the moon had supported the Constellation program as a stepping stone to Mars.

WHAT DOES OBAMA WANT TO DO INSTEAD?

Use taxpayer funds to spur development of new technologies needed for future space exploration initiatives and beef up monitoring of Earth’s climate.

NASA officials say work on the new program will be spread 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.

Some critics say that without a clear destination, NASA will be working in a bubble with no objective or end-goal.

HOW MANY PEOPLE WILL BE IMPACTED BY THE SHUTDOWN OF THE

SHUTTLE PROGRAM AND CANCELLATION OF THE CONSTELLATION PLAN?

An estimated 23,000 jobs will be lost in Florida, including space workers and related work in hotels, restaurants, retail stores and other services depending on space center business.

Texas forecasts about 6,000 job cuts. Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center employs about 2,500 people under Constellation and losses also are feared there.

The head of Lockheed Martin Corp’s space systems business says it could experience job losses if Congress backs the Obama administration’s proposal to kill the moon spacecraft program under Constellation.

It is not immediately clear just how many new jobs will be created by the new commercial opportunities in space transport under the Obama plan.

WHAT HAPPENS IF CONGRESS DOESN’T BACK OBAMA’S PLAN?

The Constellation program will continue with development of NASA’s Ares 1 rocket and a capsule called Orion.

But there would be no funds to start work on other equipment needed to fly to the moon, such as a lander and a rocket booster to leave Earth orbit.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Bill Trott

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