CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to blunt criticism of his new space policy on Thursday by telling NASA workers his plans would save some jobs and steer a course toward a manned mission to Mars.
Obama laid out his case on a visit to Kennedy Space Center, where a sense of a looming crisis has taken hold because thousands of jobs are drying up when the space shuttle is retired at the end of the year. Many also fear the U.S. space program will no longer be a world leader.
Obama told a crowd of about 200 people at Kennedy Space Center, a key source of jobs in the election battleground state of Florida, he understood their worries and addressed some of the critics, who included Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon.
“The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way,” Obama said to applause.
Pledging a “transformative agenda” for NASA, Obama sketched an ambitious vision of developing by 2025 spacecraft capable of journeys into deep space and by the mid-2030s sending astronauts to an asteroid, into orbit around Mars and later to land there. “And I expect to be around to see it,” he said.
But Obama did not provide a detailed road map of how these breakthroughs would be achieved.
Obama said a $6 billion increase in NASA’s budget will help ramp up exploration of the solar system, increase Earth-based observation to improve an understanding of climate change, and bolster support for private space companies which he said have formed a bedrock of America’s space programs.
To those who would return America to the moon as had been planned, Obama said: “I just have to say pretty bluntly — we’ve been there before...There’s a lot more space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do.”
Obama has faced sharp criticism for proposing to abandon the Constellation moon program after $9 billion has been spent and allocate $6 billion to support private companies in developing space rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Getting a glimpse of what he hopes will be the future of the space program, Obama took a walk to look at a Falcon 9 rocket set to lift off in a test next month. It is a product of SpaceX, a private company.
In his speech, the president said he wants to accelerate development of a large, heavy-lift rocket to carry astronauts beyond low-earth orbit. He called for making a decision on the new rocket design in 2015.
Obama stuck to his decision to cancel the Constellation program, designed by the previous Bush administration to return Americans to the moon and which was behind schedule.
He reaffirmed he 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 estimates the new plan would create an estimated 2,500 jobs in the Cape Canaveral area.
To ease the transition for workers dislocated, Obama proposed a $40 million fund to help transform the regional economy around NASA’s Florida facilities and prepare its workforce for new opportunities.
The skeptical and disheartened community expects to lose 9,000 Kennedy Space Center jobs when the shuttle program ends and Constellation is shut down.
Another 14,000 job losses could take place in related industries, including restaurants, hotels and retail shops.
“It’s not just the local community that will be affected. It’ll be the whole nation. We won’t be No. 1 in space anymore,” said Karan Conklin, who oversees the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Fla.
Space companies welcomed the plan and said it would create thousands of new jobs almost immediately.
“The commercial space industry is eager to do our part to hire the experienced workers in Florida and elsewhere who are being transitioned from the retiring space shuttle,” said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems and chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
Obama’s proposed changes prompted Apollo 11 astronaut Armstrong to emerge briefly from his habitual reclusion to complain that the U.S. space program, long the world leader, was at risk of being reduced to a “second or even third rate stature.”
But his Apollo 11 crewmate, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who flew with Obama to Cape Canaveral, has backed the president’s plan.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle and Jeff Mason in Washington, editing by Cynthia Osterman