Obama sets out Mars mission
Apr 16, 2010 8 comments
US President Barack Obama has announced a new direction for NASA that will involve plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. Speaking yesterday at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the launching spot for US manned spaceflights, Obama also called for a new "heavy-lift" rocket design to take astronauts on a mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s that will "eventually" be used to take humans to the Martian surface.
In February the Obama administration announced that it was cancelling the Constellation programme – first proposed by George W Bush in 2004 – to develop new rockets that would allow astronauts to return to the Moon by 2020. Critics argued that the decision would surrender US leadership in space and extinguish the country's vision of exploration. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, called the decision "devastating" and a waste of the $10bn investment in Constellation and the years of research and development put into the project.
The new plan involves retaining some of the Constellation's technology and NASA will now start to adapt its Orion crew capsule as a kind of "space lifeboat" that will reduce reliance on foreign vehicles to rescue astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS).
Obama also announced that NASA will now invest more than $3bn in research on an advanced heavy-lift rocket for missions to a near-Earth asteroid and Mars, with a design expected to be complete "no later" than 2015. The rocket, which should be complete a few years after, could be used for a trip to a near-Earth asteroid and then in a separate mission to Mars.
Obama noted that he expects to still "be around" by the time US astronauts land on the red planet. "We will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs," Obama said yesterday. "Nobody is more committed to human exploration of space than I am. But we've got to do it in a smart way."
The new plans also include modernizing Kennedy Space Center as well as upgrading its launch capabilities. That process should create more than 2500 extra jobs in the region, compensating in part for job losses that will occur due to the planned end of the space shuttle programme this year. Obama also called for NASA and other government agencies to develop a plan for economic growth and job creation in the region by 15 August.
In his speech, Obama also laid out where an additional $6bn over the next five years for NASA will be spent. First announced in Obama's 2011 budget request to Congress, this new money will go on increasing Earth-based observations, extending the life of the ISS by more than five years as well as working with private companies to make getting to space easier and more affordable.
About the author
Peter Gwynne is Physics World's North America correspondent