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Obama comes to Florida amid complaints about his space policy

President Obama arrives at the Kennedy Space Center today for a high-stakes game of political damage control.

On Florida's Space Coast, where thousands of highly trained workers launch space shuttles, he'll try to convince a skeptical audience he is not planning to kill the space program.

It could be a tough sell, even though Obama recently proposed a budget that would actually increase NASA spending.

The first and last men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, issued a letter this week saying Obama's plan "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature." More than 3,000 people thronged a "Save our Space" rally in Cocoa on Sunday, where Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp said, "We cannot allow the Chinese or the Russians or anyone else to seize superiority in space."

Even U.S. Sen Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has chastised the White House for "huge mistakes" in rolling out the plan, saying unless Obama makes changes, "he's got a hostile Florida."

The uncertainty over the program's direction stems from the 2003 Columbia disaster and a consensus that the nation needed a safer, cheaper way to launch astronauts. So the Bush administration planned to kill the shuttle program by the end of this year and replace it with the Constellation program, designed to send astronauts to the moon and Mars. New rockets would have launched as early as 2012.

But Obama canceled Constellation, which was over budget and behind schedule.

Instead, the administration called for cutting-edge missions such as sending astronauts to asteroids, the moons of Mars and Mars itself. But for a few years, U.S. astronauts traveling to the International Space Station would have to get there aboard Russian spacecraft (at $50 million per trip) and on yet-to-be developed commercial rockets.

Criticism has been withering. Even NASA administrator Charles Bolden has admitted mishandling the announcement.

"They've as much as said 'we really screwed this up' because the only thing they were clear about is what they didn't want to do," said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute, which works to bring research and commercial projects to Kennedy Space Center. "It was very easy for critics of the president to characterize what they were doing as abandoning human space flight."

Former astronaut Winston Scott, dean of the college of aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology, says NASA should keep flying shuttles until a new craft is ready.

"You can't call yourself a leader if you have to hitch a ride with someone else,'' he said.

The stage is set for Obama to make a defining statement about his plans. Already, the White House has said it will revive part of the Constellation program and pledged to speed development of a powerful new rocket.

Whatever he says will resonate in Florida, the main launch pad and a key state politically.

Obama's visit is a clear concession to the state's political importance, said Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

"Policy and politics always get mixed together,'' Jewett said. "Brevard is part of the I-4 corridor and he won the I-4 corridor and Florida last time and I'm sure he would like to do it again.''

To some extent, Obama may be shouldering too much blame, Jewett says, in that decisions to end the shuttle were made during the Bush administration. But Obama hasn't reversed the job loss impact, which has "unfolded like a slow car wreck.''

"He's in a tough spot," said Edward Ellegood, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Despite the fact that Constellation would never have met its budget and schedule targets, his decision to cancel it is being viewed, inaccurately, as the end of U.S. space exploration. He's also being asked to keep the space shuttle flying. The cost of doing this precludes any aggressive exploration activity and keeps us in the same rut we've been in for the past several decades, going round and round in low Earth orbit."

Despite the criticism, Obama's plan is not simply a retreat. It increases the NASA budget by $6 billion over the next five years. It says the United States should begin new robotic missions, devise a new propulsion system, extend the life of the International Space Station and add $3 billion in programs managed by the Kennedy Space Center.

It is designed to solve technical problems that need to be dealt with before NASA can think of getting to Mars.

It has been clear for years that the Space Coast would lose as many as 7,000 jobs because of retiring the shuttle, but the White House says there will be 2,500 more jobs under its plan than under Bush's.

Obama's statement today matters a lot for the economy of the Space Coast, but it's bigger than that. Though the days of the U.S.-Soviet space race are long gone, many advocates believe the United States needs to keep pushing aggressively to explore new frontiers in the heavens — and to do it first.

"If you don't control your destiny in space, it's a multifaceted losing proposition to yield the high ground to the Russians and Chinese,'' said Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, who represents part of the Space Coast.

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Louis Jacobson contributed to this report, which contains information from MSNBC.

See the speech

President Barack Obama's speech at Kennedy Space Center is expected to begin between 2:45 and 3 p.m. today. You can watch it live at nasa.gov/ntv.

Obama comes to Florida amid complaints about his space policy 04/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 7:57am]
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