In a speech aimed at overcoming opposition to his new plan for NASA, President Barack Obama this afternoon announced an apparent compromise that would allow the agency to keep alive a few elements of the Constellation program. That program, initiated under former president George W. Bush, had been all but eliminated from the Administration's 2011 budget released in February. Obama now wants NASA to develop a stripped-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle—which was part of Constellation—as a lifeboat for the international space station. The president also wants NASA to start building a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, a proposal that had been missing from the 2011 budget rollout.
Both announcements, contained in a brief but passionate speech the president gave before an audience of lawmakers, scientists, engineers, and businessmen at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, are intended to convince Congress that NASA is not handing over the business of human space exploration entirely to the private sector.
A number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as former astronauts and space policy experts, have criticized the Administration's plan to eliminate Constellation, which has thus far cost taxpayers over $9 billion. Retaining Orion—though in the form of what some are calling Orion-Lite—and promising to build a heavy lift rocket, which too was part of the Constellation, could help the Administration counteract some of the criticism and ultimately win congressional approval for the new direction set out in the 2011 budget.
"The bottom line is that nobody is more committed to manned space flight than I am," the president said. "But we've got to do it in a smart way." Earlier, in a thinly disguised reference to Constellation—which the Administration believes was doomed from the start—NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said: "Dreams do not become reality through wishful thinking alone."
Responding to worries about job losses expected from the termination of Constellation, the president said that the new plan would add at least 2600 jobs in Florida alone in addition to the thousands of jobs he expects will be added to the private sector. He also announced a $40 million initiative "led by led by a high-level team from the White House, NASA, and other agencies to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation" on the SpaceCoast, where opposition to the new plan has been the strongest. "I expect this plan to reach my desk by August 15," he said.
Whether the president's compromise on Constellation and the peace offering to the Space Coast will lessen political opposition to his plan remains to be seen. In the short term, the criticisms seem unlikely to abate, though. "The president's announcement today, unfortunately, still will do nothing to ensure America's superiority in human space exploration or to decrease our reliance on Russia in the interim," Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, said in a statement released minutes after the president's speech.