President Barack Obama has a chance this week to sharpen his administration's fuzzy vision for NASA. Obama should use a summit meeting in Florida on NASA's future to lay out a more compelling strategy for reviving the manned space program. He also needs to underscore federal support for robotic exploration, research and commercialization of space. The space program is too important to the nation and to Florida for the agency to lose direction or become a shell of its former self.
Obama's budget proposal in February called for ending the problem-plagued Constellation return-to-the-moon program. He would redirect that money in the near term toward privatizing manned space flight, and over the long term spend billions on the development of new heavy-lift rocket systems. The strategy is half right. Constellation was years behind and billions over budget; it would not have put an American on the moon before the 2030s. But Obama didn't make the leap and draw any new destination or timetable. He also failed to distinguish clear roles in space for the public and private sectors.
Obama's visit Thursday to Florida is an acknowledgment of the anxiety he has created in a state with a storied history and huge financial stake in America's space program. The president needs to use the trip to clarify his ambitions for manned flight. Does scrapping the moon mission leave Mars on the table? How does the United States design a next-generation rocket if it has no idea where the astronauts should go? Obama would increase NASA's budget by $6 billion, to $100 billion over the next five years. But that likely would not cover a robust rocket program. And he has not laid out what the private sector must accomplish in return for taking over research and development responsibilities.
The stakes for Florida are high, and they go far beyond any debate over extending the life of the space shuttle beyond 2010. The shuttle fleet will be retired soon enough. The challenge now is to retain, redirect and grow a highly skilled and well-paid work force. Obama's budget would do several good things for Florida. It would extend the life of the space station, invest in robotic research and space-based applications, and soften the shuttle fallout by spending billions to modernize Kennedy Space Center for both government and commercial launches.
But the aerospace industry also needs a strong sign that the administration is committed to research and development for the long haul. Given the time and expense it takes to bring any product from the research and development stage to the market, the industry will need to see a serious partner on the public side to commit its own money. Obama also has a chance to send a strong message to the Florida Legislature in the closing days of this year's session. Space Florida, the state's aerospace development arm, has done a good job preparing the state to absorb the loss of thousands of shuttle-related jobs. Whether Obama's plan will make NASA stronger remains to be seen. But state lawmakers should ensure that Space Florida is in a position to either capitalize on the good or make do with the bad.