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Obama's NASA plan agitates Florida

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama revealed his plan for the nation's space program, he turned to Buzz Aldrin to explain the new direction, one imagined as more innovative and ambitious.

"As an Apollo astronaut, I know the importance of always pushing new frontiers," Aldrin said on Feb. 1. "The truth is that we have already been to the moon, some 40 years ago."

So with a pioneer's imprimatur, Obama moved to scrap NASA's planned return to the moon and push onward, with the help of private industry.

But Obama sparked a scathing backlash in Florida. The entire congressional delegation is fighting to preserve an iconic industry with a major presence in the state.

The battle reached such a pitch last week — with politicians stoking fears about thousands of lost jobs and the Russians and Chinese overtaking our cosmic might — that Obama said he will travel to Florida on April 15 to explain himself.

"I'm not sure he's got a vision at this point," said Sen. Bill Nelson, who has chastised the White House for "huge mistakes" in rolling out the plan. "They would not listen."

Unless Obama makes some changes, Nelson said, "he's got a hostile Florida."

The issue will test the influence of Sunshine state lawmakers — who have never presented a unified voice on the issue — and their allies from space-dependent states such as Texas and Alabama.

Obama has to determine how much political capital he is willing to spend defending the approach, particularly in an election battleground state that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

"We're just hoping he has an open mind," said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a New Smyrna Beach Democrat whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center.

On Wednesday, Kosmas introduced a bill with Republican Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge to extend space shuttle missions, scheduled to cease in September, and accelerate development of a heavy-lift rocket vehicle. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Past efforts to prevent the fallout have faltered. In 2009, Posey sponsored the American Space Access Act, which would keep the shuttle going until a replacement is online, but it went nowhere.

Posey's office cited the lack of a NASA administrator at the time and reservations from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "If you are asking me personally, I have not been a big fan of manned expeditions to outer space in terms of safety and cost," Pelosi said.

Lawmakers have also failed to offset budget cuts that have stymied development of the replacement moon rocket program, Constellation. Nelson blames President George W. Bush's administration for "starving" NASA and not heeding a commitment to return to the moon.

Even now, there are emerging divisions. Nelson, who once flew on the space shuttle and is chairman of the subcommittee on space, supports one additional shuttle mission but said the equipment for more would not be ready for two years. Instead Nelson wants to focus on developing a heavy-lift vehicle.

• • •

Obama's plan would increase NASA funding $6 billion over five years, including funding to modernize Kennedy Space Center. But the proposal calls for more emphasis on science research and less on space travel.

Most notable, the president would cancel the effort to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, which includes the Ares rocket program and the development of the Orion crew capsule. More than $9 billion has been spent on the programs, and it will cost $2.5 billion to shut them down.

Obama wants to put more money into designing vehicles that would go beyond the moon and spend more on assisting commercial ventures. The ideas have followers, who desire greater emphasis on research and design.

NASA has not been helped by public relations problems. The agency is viewed by some as a bloated bureaucracy fraught with cost overruns and delays. (Still, the $18.7 billion in funding is less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget.) And the public grew less interested as the magic of space exploration wore off and the 2003 Columbia disaster renewed the debate over safety.

"It's hard to overcome the notion that you can do without," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. "And there is great sentiment out there that the space program is wasteful."

• • •

No one in Florida wants to be branded as anything but strident for an industry that is memorialized on the state quarter — a space shuttle soaring over the motto "Gateway to Discovery."

"We've come too far to turn back now," Hastings said.

The Florida delegation sent a letter to Obama last week expressing deep concerns over his proposal, particularly that there was no heavy-lift program to replace Constellation.

"Coupled with the planned retirement of the shuttle," it reads, "this leaves the future of U.S. human spaceflight in serious doubt, and the highly skilled work force with the prospect of a major upheaval."

The letter said the importance of space exploration is "well established but is sometimes taken for granted as we reap the benefits from decades of previous commitment and investments in our space program."

Kosmas and Posey, whose districts are tightly connected to the space industry, have lobbied other members for support of their bill and quickly attracted a host of co-sponsors last week. Kosmas has tried to turn Pelosi, too, sending the House speaker a letter after reading she was not a "big fan" of human spaceflight.

• • •

About 7,000 jobs, primarily NASA contractors, would be lost at Kennedy Space Center when the shuttle is retired. Private human transportation services would bring 1,700 jobs to Florida, offsetting some of the loss. Nelson and others in Florida say they will push for provisions that new commercial ventures hire laid-off workers, and he will push for continued funding of the Ares rocket.

Hastings and others defend their stance as more than protecting a niche industry focused in central Florida. Space exploration, they say, is a part of national security and prestige. As it stands now, U.S. astronauts will have to rely on Russian crafts to reach the International Space Station.

The Russians! some lawmakers seem to be screaming.

"The president's budget proposal would make us a third-rate power," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. He said the space program was at an important juncture but predicted there is broad bipartisan support in Congress to reverse Obama's direction.

Jeff Foust, who follows the issue on his blog spacepolitics.com — "Because sometimes the most important orbit is the Beltway" — expects a compromise that minimizes job losses.

But he said it is unwise to predict winners and losers now. "The battle over the future of NASA is a 15-round heavyweight fight, and we're maybe in the second round right now," he said.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

2011 Year the space shuttle program is expected to end

7,000 NASA jobs likely to evaporate with the end of the space shuttle program

1,700 Jobs private enterprise is expected to generate in Florida

$9 billion

Amount spent on the Ares rocket program and the development of the Orion crew capsule

$2.5 billion

The cost to shut down those programs

Obama's NASA plan agitates Florida 03/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 15, 2010 12:28am]

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