WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is reviving the NASA crew capsule concept that he had canceled with the rest of the moon program earlier this year, in a move that will mean more jobs and less reliance on the Russians, officials said Tuesday.
The space capsule, called Orion, still won't go to the moon. It will go unmanned to the International Space Station to stand by as an emergency vehicle to return astronauts home, officials said.
Administration officials also said NASA will speed up development of a massive rocket. It would have the power to blast crew and cargo far from Earth, although no destination has been chosen yet. The rocket would be ready to launch several years earlier than under the old moon plan.
The two moves are being announced before a Thursday visit to Cape Canaveral, Fla., by Obama. They are designed to counter criticism of the Obama administration's space plans as being low on detail, physical hardware and local jobs.
The president killed President George W. Bush's moon mission, called Constellation, as being unsustainable. In a major shift, the Obama space plan relies on private companies to fly to the space station. But it also extends the space station's life by five years and puts billions into research to eventually develop new government rocketships for future missions to a nearby asteroid, the moon, Martian moons or other points in space. Those stops would be stepping stones on an eventual mission to Mars.
First man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong, veteran Apollo astronauts and former senior NASA managers have been attacking the Obama plan – before the latest revision – as the death of U.S. leadership in space. Armstrong in an e-mail to The Associated Press said he had "substantial reservations," and more than two dozen Apollo-era veterans signed a letter calling the plan a "misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future."
Another American space icon, Buzz Aldrin, has been far more positive about Obama's plan. He released a statement in February "strongly" endorsing the president's NASA plans.
As an Apollo astronaut, I know the importance of always pushing new frontiers as we explore space. The truth is, that we have already been to the Moon - some 40 years ago. A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our Nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century. We need to be in this for the long haul, and this program will allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth. I hope NASA will embrace this new direction as much as I do, and help us all continue to use space exploration to drive prosperity and innovation right here on Earth.
I also believe the steps we will be taking following the President's direction will best position NASA and other space agencies to send humans to Mars and other exciting destinations as quickly as possible. To do that, we will need to support many types of game-changing technologies NASA and its partners will be developing. Mars is the next frontier for humankind, and NASA will be leading the way there if we aggressively support the President's plans.
Even with the revival of the Orion crew capsule, the overall moon return mission initiated by Bush – which involved a base camp – remains dead. And the revived Orion, slimmed-down from earlier versions, won't be used as originally intended, to land on the moon.
The capsule will be developed and launched – unmanned – on an existing rocket to the space station, said a senior NASA official who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to detract from the presidential announcement. The Orion would remain at the space station and be used as an emergency escape ship back to Earth. That would mean NASA wouldn't have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsule to return astronauts to Earth.
Launching Orion on unmanned existing rockets – such as Atlas or Deltas – would save money and time.
The Obama plan also will speed up development of a larger, "heavy-lift" rocket that would take cargo and crew away from Earth orbit to the moon, asteroids and other places.
Originally, Obama was proposing just spending billions of dollars on various research programs to eventually develop breakthroughs to make such trips cheaper and faster. Critics said that plan was too vague.
Now, the president is committed to choosing a single heavy-lift rocket design by 2015 and then starting its construction, officials said.
This shift by Obama means NASA would launch a heavy rocket years before it was supposed to under the old Constellation plan, the NASA official said. However, it will be different from the Apollo-like Ares V rocket that the Constellation plan would have used. Instead it will incorporate newer concepts such as refueling in orbit or using inflatable habitats, officials said.
Overall, the Obama program will mean 2,500 more Florida jobs than the old Bush program, a senior White House official said. In addition, the commercial space industry on Tuesday released a study that said the president's plan for private ships to fly astronauts to and from the space station would result in 11,800 jobs.
The changes elicited cautious early praise from officials on Capitol Hill representing states with space jobs.
"It is an encouraging development," said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a vulnerable freshman Democrat who represents the district including Kennedy Space Center. "I look forward to reviewing the full details of the plan to determine if it does enough to protect Space Coast jobs and maintain America's international leadership in space, science and technology."
Much of the work by Lockheed Martin on building Orion is done in Colorado, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., praised the changes: "While NASA still faces difficult challenges ahead, this is great news for Colorado – and the nation's leadership in space."
But NASA legend Chris Kraft, who directed mission control from Mercury through Apollo, said the changes to the Obama plan didn't address his main concerns, which included retirement of the space shuttle.
"They're concentrating on the wrong thing," Kraft said Tuesday evening. "The problem is not safety on space station and escape; the problem is getting to and from the space station."
And Kraft said he sees no reason to speed up work on a new larger rocket, saying, "We need a heavy-lift vehicle like we need a hole in the head."