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Future's past: Obama lays out next 25 years of space exploration by citing NASA history

President Obama waves as he walks past a space shuttle main engine and Orion capsule mock-up. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
April 16, 2010

— President Barack Obama said Thursday that the 'small steps' taken by the Apollo astronauts four decades ago were just the beginning of the United States' manned space exploration efforts, announcing his goals to launch the first astronaut crew to an asteroid in 2025 and circle Mars by the mid-2030s.

"Little more than 40 years ago, astronauts descended the nine-rung ladder of the lunar module called 'Eagle,' and allowed their feet to touch the dusty surface of the Earth's only Moon," recalled Obama, addressing about 200 invited guests — including one of those moonwalkers, Buzz Aldrin — at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"It wasn't just the greatest achievement in NASA history, it was one of the greatest achievements in human history. The question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something," said the President.

"I choose to believe it was only the beginning."

Click to enlarge and view in pop-up window. (The White House)

Stating he was "100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future," Obama evoked the history of the space race to set the stage for what he envisioned for the United States in space going forward.

"It is a story that started a little more than half a century ago, far from the Space Coast, in a remote and desolate region of what is now called Kazakhstan," he commented. "It was from there that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth."

"Americans were dumbfounded," Obama continued. "The Soviets, it was perceived, had taken the lead in a race for which we were not yet fully prepared."

"But we caught up very quick," he remarked, speaking of the 1969 moon landing. "NASA was at the forefront."

"Leading the world to space helped America achieve new heights of prosperity here on Earth, while demonstrating the power of a free and open society to harness the ingenuity of its people," he said.

President Obama speaks inside the Operations and Checkout building at the Kennedy Space Center. (Ben Cooper/SFN)

But, as the President pointed out, the past differs from the present.

"The challenges facing our space program are different, and our imperatives for this program are different, than in decades past," he explained. "We are no longer racing against an adversary. We are no longer competing to achieve a singular goal like reaching the Moon."

In fact, he said, the Moon does not factor into his plan.

"I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we've been there before. Buzz has been there," Obama observed, referring to Aldrin in the front row. "There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do."

"I believe it's more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach and operate at a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward."

To that end, Obama then laid out his time line for the next 25 years.

"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space."

"We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow."

"And I expect to be around to see it," he added.

To accomplish these goals, Obama proposed continuing development of the Orion spacecraft that begun under the Constellation program, first as a rescue vehicle for crews aboard the International Space Station, and then as "part of the technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions."

To launch those missions, the President planned to invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy lift rocket.

"We will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it," he said.

"That's at least two years earlier than previously planned — and that's conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over budget," Obama stated in reference to the Ares V rocket as part of Constellation.

Obama: "I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, itŐs not an afterthought in AmericaŐs quest for a brighter future — it is an essential part of that quest." (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In addition to those proposals, Obama called for the U.S. use of the International Space Station to be extended by five years to 2020, for NASA to expand its research into "groundbreaking technologies" and to "work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable."

The President said he disagreed with those critical of his plan to rely on commercial crew launch services after the space shuttle retires following three more flights.

"The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space," he said, "from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead."

Addressing criticism that his plan would mean an end to U.S. crewed space exploration, Obama affirmed there was nobody more "committed to manned space flight, to [the] human exploration of space" than he was.

"But we've got to do it in a smart way, and we can't just keep on doing the same old things that we've been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to go," he said.

"Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite."

"And in fulfilling this task, we'll not only extend humanity's reach in space — we will strengthen America's leadership here on Earth."

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