The President has finally revealed details of his plans for NASA, as part of a desperate PR trick to recover from criticism after he canceled the Constellation moonshot rockets. Mars is the new goal, a disappointing 25 years hence.
Obama, speaking late yesterday, said that he was "100% committed" to NASA and its future in space exploration and science. He underlined this by explaining exactly how some of the additional money he's pumping into NASA will be spent, which included provisions for creating 2,500 new jobs on Florida's "space coast." This will be reassuring indeed to some NASA employees who'd been concerned that the President's plans would slash NASA's employee figures. Part of this commitment is, as we'd expected, to keep the Orion capsule element of Constellation alive to be used as an emergency escape vehicle from the ISS (and presumably other later space vehicles too.)
And then Obama said something that may come as a surprise to you, if you've been following this story—it'll certainly be welcomed by his recent, vocal, astronaut critics: "We should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned." We'd assumed that scrapping the Constellation system meant avoiding the Moon too, but apparently not—it'll likely just be to test-out systems though, rather than for detailed exploration, as the President was careful to note "I just have to say, pretty bluntly here, we've been there before."
The real goal is to get interplanetary space-borne vehicles in operation around 2025. Their destinations may include asteroids, which is fabulous news for those scientists keen to work out how the solar system was formed. By the mid-2030s Obama envisages that these spaceships (and these may be the vehicles that deserve this label "properly" for the first time) will be ready to take humans to the surface of Mars and back, with a landing sometime after the first orbital visits.
To achieve this, $1.9 billion of the extra cash will go to upgrading the Kennedy Space Center, and $3 billion will go toward a new heavy-lift rocket system that will hoist the necessary huge bits of hardware for Mars exploration into orbit (and possibly the astronauts too.)
But the "mid 2030s" is a very nebulous timescale, and knowing how monstrously big organizations like NASA tend to overshoot their targets (particularly when the government meddles with the affair) it would seem that the goal of reaching Mars is very, very distant indeed. Fifteen years is also a long time to go without human-lift rocket systems in the U.S...and though there are corporate space companies rushing to fulfill these manned missions, their timescales still mean a large delay between the end of Shuttle flights and the start of the new "enterprise-enabled" space age. This will disappoint many critics, and the resulting political infighting could even result in further delays.
Is Obama truly committed to space or not, folks? Or should he slash cash from the thousands-of-times more expensive military machine, in order to inspire this generation to think starwards again?
To keep up with this news in a more real-time setting, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too. (And if you've no idea what that spotty-looking thing is, then find out here.)