On the Defensive, President Obama Pledges Commitment to NASA, Space Exploration

President Obama defended his plans for the NASA space exploration program today, saying, "I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future."

He addressed a crowd of a couple of hundred astronauts, engineers and members of the NASA community at the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Obama administration has articulated a new direction for NASA that includes more investment in commercial space transportation, and research and development that ultimately will lead to a manned mission to an asteroid and also to Mars.

VIDEO: The president maps out a new mission for NASA, setting sights beyond the moon.Play

"Broadening our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine," the president told the crowd, "because exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation -- sparking passions and launching careers -- and because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character."

As evidence of his administration's commitment to space exploration, Obama touted a $6 billion boost for NASA despite the current recession and federal budget freeze on other major government agencies.

The president called himself part of the "generation so inspired by the space program."

Video of President Barack Obama announcing his committment to space exploration.Play
President Barack Obama: Committed to Space Exploration, NASA

He added that investing in NASA is a necessity, not a luxury.

"For me, the space program has always captured an essential part of what it means to be an American -- reaching for new heights, stretching beyond what previously did not seem possible," he said. "And so, as president, I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, it's not an afterthought in America's quest for a brighter future -- it is an essential part of that quest."

The Obama administration has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks for its decision to cancel the Bush administration's plan to send an American manned mission to the moon for a seventh time.

Armstrong: Changes Would Jeopardize America's Leadership in Space

Today, the president had a blunt response.

"We've been there before. Buzz has been there," he said referring to Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who flew down to Florida on Air Force One. "There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do."

The end of the constellation program, along with the sunset of the space shuttle program announced in 2004, has many along the Florida space coast worried about their jobs.

Obama acknowledged those concerns and promised a $40 million investment to reinvigorate the regional economy.

"Despite some reports to the contrary, my plan will add more than 2,500 jobs along the space coast in the next two years," he said. "We're going to modernize the Kennedy Space Center, creating jobs as we upgrade launch facilities. And there's potential for even more jobs as companies in Florida and across America compete to be part of a new space transportation industry."

Obama said his policy "holds the promise of generating more than 10,000 jobs nationwide over the next few years."

"And many of these jobs will be created right here in Florida, because this is an area primed to lead in this competition," he said.

The administration has been forced this week into a public relations battle over the planned changes to the space program.

The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said the changes would jeopardize America's leadership in space.

Armstrong and two Apollo veterans, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan, wrote in a letter to the media that, "Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity."

Obama landed this afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center's shuttle landing facility -- the first president to do that in 32 years. He is the first sitting president in 12 years to visit the center on Florida's Atlantic coast.

The president spoke in a cavernous hall, over two football fields long, where the Apollo capsules were assembled in the 1960s and where the space vehicles of the future, the Orion capsules, were to be assembled.

Obama Announces Ambitious Space Goals

Obama traveled to Florida with Aldrin, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Democratic Reps. Suzanne Kosmas, whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, and Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston, where Johnson Space Center is located.

Before his address, Obama got a first-hand look at some of the NASA's cutting-edge technology, the Falcon 9 rocket -- a commercial rocket scheduled to take cargo to the international space station sometime next month after its first test launch.

Obama set ambitious goals: crew missions beyond the moon and into deep space by 2025 and orbiting Mars by 2030.

He expects "to be around" to see a Mars landing.

He paid homage to the astronauts and scientists who made the first moon landing possible.

"It wasn't just the greatest achievement in NASA's history, it was one of the greatest achievements in human history," he said. "And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning."

ABC News' Matt Gutman contributed to this report.