President Obama is expected to announce two major developments today at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that could take the nation's space program to another level.
The first is the development of a new "heavy lift rocket" that will be used to lift future deep-space craft and is supposed to "push the boundaries" of U.S. exploration in space with the ultimate goal of sending American astronauts to Mars.
The second is the re-structuring of the Orion crew capsule, with a simpler design focused on crew emergency escape from the international space station. Administration officials say this renovation will lay "the foundation for future exploration spacecraft."
These expected announcements come on the heels of other major steps the administration has taken to revamp the nation's space program, including a $6 billion funding increase for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and a plan to redirect resources within the space agency and put an end to programs that administration officials say are years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.
Critics say NASA is being dramatically scaled back and tens of thousands of jobs are expected to be lost.
The administration insists that this plan is actually going to create 2,500 more jobs in the Florida Space Coast by 2012 and 10,000 over the next decade. The new jobs will come from the development of the commercial space industry and a plan to modernize the Kennedy Space Center.
In addition, the administration says it will launch a $40 million multi-agency initiative to help the Space Coast transform its economy.
White House officials say the bulk of the job losses have been triggered by the decision by the previous Bush administration to cancel the shuttle program in 2004, and that the new jobs created will not replace all those lost shuttle jobs.
However, they say the new program will put the space program on a better trajectory, with more money for NASA, more jobs for the country, more innovation, more astronaut time in space, more rockets launching sooner and a fundamentally more ambitious and sustainable space program.
Buzz Aldrin Backs Obama Space Plans
Neil Armstrong, the famed astronaut and first moon-walker, has been vocal in his criticism of the new plans for NASA, but the White House is trumpeting their own American heroes -- the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and the second person to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin.
Ride put her stamp of approval on the president's plan, saying Thursday in a statement that his "bold strategic shift" will "excite and energize the next generation."
"It reinvigorates NASA's long-neglected technology program and focuses it on technologies necessary for human exploration," Ride said. "It shifts our focus from the Moon and frees us to chart a path for human exploration into the solar system. It propels astronauts further, faster -- and to a variety of new destinations."
Aldrin issued a statement Wednesday also praising the administration's announcements.
"The President's program will help us be in this endeavor for the long haul and will allow us to again push our boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth. I believe that this is the right program at the right time, and I hope that NASA and our dedicated space community will embrace this new direction as much as I do," Aldrin said in the statement.
White House officials say that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is reaching out to Neil Armstrong. In the meantime, the administration will be convening a task force that will present an economic plan for the Florida space industry to the president within the next 120 days.
"As an Apollo astronaut, I know full well the importance of always exploring new frontiers and tackling new challenges as we explore space. The simple truth is that we have already been to the Moon -- some 40 years ago," Aldrin said.
"What this nation needs in order to maintain its position as the 21st century leader in space exploration is a near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies that will take us further and faster -- while expanding our opportunities for exploration along the way," he said.