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Obama defends NASA program

From NBC's Ali Weinberg
President Obama
defended his newly-announced recommendations for NASA, addressing the grievances of some in the space industry that the plan -- which cancels some projects announced during the Bush administration -- would compromise the United States' leadership in space exploration.

After announcing earlier in the week that it would be cancelling George W. Bush's Constellation space program, which was geared towards manned missions to the Moon and eventually Mars, the Obama administration was met with unusual resistence from notable astronauts including Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

One of the most contentious parts of the new program is the scaled-down version of the Ares I and V launch vehicles and the Orion crew capsule -- technology proposed under the Constellation program that would be used to tranport astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the Moon. Without NASA-owned capsules, American astronauts will be forced to use commercial space transportation, a concept abhored by some in the space industry.

Obama pinpointed those concerns in his speech in front of 200 NASA employees, astronauts, and members of Congress. "I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree." He added that the investment in private companies would spur economic growth. "By buying the services of space transportation -- rather than the vehicles themselves -- we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies -- from young startups to established leaders -- compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere."

Obama defended the reasons for cancelling the Ares and Orion programs, referring to the recommendations of a "panel of respected non-partisan experts charged with looking at these issues closely" who concluded that "the old strategy ... was not fulfilling its promise in many ways."

The panel he referred to is the 10-person Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee because it was chaired by former Lockheed Martin president Norman Augustine. In a study published last year, the commission concluded that "the U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory" and that "it is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources."

Citing the pace of development for the Ares I and V programs and the Orion capsule, and their ability to transport astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS), the commission wrote, "The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015."

To compensate for that lag, Obama's plan proposes building a new heavy-lift rocket that would be completed sooner than Ares and Orion would have been. In addition, the plan increases NASA's budget by $6 billion over 5 years. And, as Obama said today, it will add more than 2,500 jobs in Florida's Kennedy Space Center area.

"This is the next chapter that we can write together here at NASA," Obama said. "We will partner with industry. We will invest in cutting-edge research and technology. We will set far-reaching milestones and provide the resources to reach those milestones. And step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do."