KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Invoking Kennedy-esque rhetoric about "new frontiers," President Barack Obama on Thursday threw money Florida's way and laid out a new timetable for his much-criticized plan to redirect America's space program toward Mars and beyond.
Saying Americans would land on Mars during his lifetime, Obama outlined several intermediate steps.
By 2015, NASA will choose specifications for a new "heavy-lift" rocket that can carry crews and cargo into deep space, he said. That would put big rocket design two years ahead of previous timetables.
NASA will fully test that rocket by the early 2020s and have crews flying by 2025, including a first-ever visit to an asteroid.
By the mid 2030s, he said, crews will orbit Mars and return — a journey now estimated to take three years. He also predicted a landing on Mars, the planet most experts view as the most likely for sustaining human life beyond the Earth.
"Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am," Obama told a few hundred reporters and space center employees. "But we've got to do it in a smart way and can't just keep doing the same old things we've been doing."
Obama has come under intense fire since February, when he killed Constellation, the Bush administration's strategy for returning to the moon by 2020. It came as a shock to aerospace workers, who already were facing massive layoffs when the space shuttle program ends this year — including a loss of up to 9,000 NASA-related jobs in Florida.
Though Constellation was behind schedule and over budget, many had hoped its big-mission timetables would return prosperity to the Space Coast. Also, without the space shuttle, the United States will have to hire the Russians or yet-to-be-built commercial rockets to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station for years to come.
By making his symbolic journey to Florida on Thursday — his was the first presidential visit to the space center since Bill Clinton's in 1998 — Obama attempted to mollify his critics, articulate his vision for deep space exploration and talk about jobs and dollars for the Sunshine State, a crucial presidential election battleground.
His plans would add 2,500 new jobs at the space center by 2012, he said, more than under the Constellation program. Among other things, his budget would:
• Increase NASA spending by $6 billion over the next five years.
• Spend $2 billion over five years adapting the Kennedy Space Center as a launching pad for commercial as well as governmental space flight.
• Invest $6 billion over five years in a new Commercial Crew Development Program at the space center to foster private launches into Earth orbit and to the International Space Station.
• Spend $6 billion over five years on a Flagship Technology Demonstration project, headquartered in Florida and Texas, to stimulate research into deep space necessities like big and fast rockets, radiation protection systems, refueling in space and ways to grow food during multiyear journeys to asteroids and Mars.
• Resurrect a scaled-down version of the six-person Orion crew capsule from the defunct Constellation project as a U.S. escape vehicle from the space station and to be "part of the technological foundation'' for advanced spacecraft in the Mars project. That drew rousing applause from workers because Orion is assembled at the cape.
Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, who favors extending the space shuttle program until a replacement launch vehicle comes on line, was not convinced.
"I'm very concerned about the impact this plan will have not just on the work force at Kennedy Space Center, but also the adverse impact on our nation's military industrial base and America's economic competitiveness," Posey said in a statement.
As for 2,500 new jobs, "there have been a lot of numbers tossed around, and NASA told us just last week they could not translate the top line budget numbers into center specific jobs numbers because those decisions would be made by the contractors,'' Posey said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, however, said he had introduced Obama to executives from two Florida companies who were willing to hire 1,750 laid off space workers based on a $40 million retraining program Obama included in the budget. Nelson declined to identify the companies.
Nelson had warned Obama last month that he was facing a "hostile Florida'' because of job loss and lack of specifics in the Mars exploration plans. After the speech, Nelson said the president was back on track.
"We asked him to restructure the Constellation program, and he did that," Nelson said, referring to new plans for the Orion capsule. "We asked him to speed up the heavy-lift vehicle and he did that. We asked him to set real timetables for deep space exploration, he did that. We asked for job retraining and he did that."
Extending the shuttle beyond its planned demise this year would be too expensive, Nelson said. It would cost about $2.5 billion a year and "then NASA would not be able to do this other stuff."
Among Obama's most vocal critics has been Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Obama did not mention Armstrong, who did not attend the speech, but he did praise Buzz Aldrin, one of Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmates.
Aldrin did attend the speech — flying in with Obama on Air Force One.
By giving up on the moon as a primary target, Obama plans to let commercial companies and foreign countries focus on transporting satellites and humans into low earth orbit while the United States turns to deep space exploration.
That will hold immeasurable benefits for humans and will cement America's traditional role as the global leader in space, Obama said. By setting Mars as the nation's goal, he said, NASA will learn about living for long periods in space.
"We will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan,'' he said. "If we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future.''