President Barack Obama wants to make dramatic changes in how NASA functions, jettisoning plans to return to the moon, letting private companies handle human transport into lower orbit and focusing the nation's space agency on new rocket technology.
But Obama's failure to extend the space shuttle program, which is expected to end by early 2011, and his decision to cancel the moon program launched by George W. Bush in 2004 means the imminent loss of at least 7,000 jobs in Florida and a sense of betrayal along the Space Coast.
"President Obama clearly didn't keep his word," said Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher, who has been involved in a letter-writing campaign in support of the Kennedy Space Center work force called www.savespace.us. "Now we've got to hope we can get some congressional support to keep people working."
Obama wants to boost NASA's budget to about $20 billion a year over the next five years. The plans include extending support of the International Space Station to 2020.
But on the chopping block is the moon effort, which includes the Ares rocket program and the development of the Orion crew capsule. More than $9 billion has been spent so far on the programs, and it will cost an additional $2.5 billion to shut them down.
Obama's budget lacks specifics about where astronauts will be flying next, when they will be going or in what kind of vehicle. But NASA officials insisted it did not mean an end of exploration. Instead, they promised that by shifting dollars from the Constellation program, which relied on 50-year-old technology to return to the moon, they would be able to develop "game-changing technology that can take us farther faster and more affordably into space."
Obama's budget also includes about $2 billion in upgrades to Kennedy Space Center facilities over the next five years. NASA officials said they expect more launches at the Florida site in coming years. Among the changes will be moving the gates at the center so unused facilities can be used by private companies.
Gov. Charlie Crist, while criticizing the elimination of the Constellation program, said there will be opportunities for state businesses in the commercial space industry. "I will work aggressively to ensure Florida is prepared to capitalize on these possibilities," he said.
But private enterprise is expected to generate only 1,700 jobs in Florida, far short of the 7,000 jobs evaporating with the end of the space shuttle program. Reminding reporters that Congress holds the purse strings, Sen. Bill Nelson said, "We've known this was coming, the question is how can we ameliorate that by bringing in additional work and keeping the finest launch team on planet Earth together."
Comments from other Florida lawmakers suggest a battle over Obama's NASA budget.
"The president's proposal lacks a bold vision for space exploration and begs for the type of leadership that he has described as critical for inspiring innovation for the 21st century," said Rep. Suzanne Komas, D-New Smyrna Beach.
"This budget effectively ends America's leadership in human space exploration," said Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge. "While the administration has thrown hundreds of billions of dollars into a failed stimulus bill, it has failed to give NASA the vision and mission to help America lead the world in space."
Dale Ketchum, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at Kennedy Space Center, said the success of Obama's vision will depend on how Congress responds.
"It's very hopeful if it's followed through aggressively and supported and funded," he said, saying Florida could benefit in the long run. "But Bush's vision for space exploration was also inspiring. He just never got around to asking for the money and Congress didn't give it to him."
Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected].