Obama unveils future of US space exploration

US President Barack Obama unveiled on Thursday plans for the future of American space exploration, committing to sending American astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The president was speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a speech to lay out his plans for the future of American space agency NASA.

Kennedy Space Center Headquarters

His comments included assurances that America was not abandoning space exploration, contrary to claims he was doing so after he announced the US’s budget for 2011, which would have ended most of NASA’s current projects, including the development of new heavy-launch rockets called the Constellation Program.

Under Obama’s new plan, NASA would receive US $6 billion in additional funding over the next five years to develop new projects, which Obama emphasized, saying NASA was in the unusual position of having an expanded budget while other government agencies were having their budgets maintained or cut in efforts to reduce the US budget deficit.

With the additional funding, NASA would extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) by an additional four years, to at least 2020, develop a new series of heavy-lift rockets by 2015, and continue development of the Orion crew capsule, a major part of the Constellation program.

Initially, the capsule would serve only as a rescue vehicle for the ISS, but would later serve as the “technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions.” The proposed plan would also retain plans for private operators to service the ISS, despite criticism that such operators were not reliable enough for the task.

The centerpiece of the plan would be manned missions to the moon and beyond, beginning with missions to asteroids around 2025, with missions to Mars following within a decade. Initially, Mars missions would consist of sending humans to orbit Mars, with missions to land on the surface of the planet coming shortly after. Obama said that under the plan, “we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do.”

Obama said that under his new plan, NASA would be able to achieve more in a shorter amount of time than it would have under the Constellation Program. He also said that, contrary to fears that changes in NASA would result in job losses in Florida, where most space missions are launched from, under his new plan, a total of 2,500 jobs would be created in the area.

The new plan would, according to Obama, lead to “major breakthroughs” in the US space program. He said that the goal of the new program would be “no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.” The president also emphasized the need for continued innovation, saying that “we’ve got to do it [space exploration] in a smart way and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve been doing and thinking that’s going to get us where we want to go.”

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