The sharper vision for NASA that President Barack Obama provided last week is good for the space program, private industry and the state of Florida. In a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, the president set a clear destination and timetable for exploring deep space. He offered new incentives to retain highly skilled aerospace jobs. He also clarified his strategy to have the private sector play a larger role in space. The administration will have to back up its vision with real money.
Obama's visit was largely an effort at damage control after the fuzzy vision he laid out in February for NASA. In that sense, what the president did not do — retreat in the face of political pressure after canceling the troubled Constellation program — was as important last week as holding hands at Cape Canaveral. There is little value in returning to the moon. It would sap precious resources away from where the nation needs to spend its money and expertise — flying to Mars. Obama gave NASA a deadline of 2015 to design a deep-space rocket and said a manned flight should orbit Mars by the 2030s.
The president's much more ambitious schedule for sending Americans into deep space gives NASA the mission it needs to develop a new-generation rocket and to maintain excellence in the astronaut corps. But while Obama would increase the space agency's budget by $6 billion, to $100 billion over the next five years, that amount is not enough for a robust rocket program, much less for the development of a deep-space crew capsule.
Obama will need to save where he can, and he must push back the temptation in Congress to turn the space agency into a generator for jobs that lead nowhere. The president has sent the right signals by resisting calls in Congress to extend the life of the space shuttle beyond its scheduled retirement this year. Farming out crew and cargo ferrying to the space station to private industry or the Russians hardly jeopardizes America's leadership in space. And it would allow NASA to focus on Mars and other new frontiers. But Obama will not get there if he continues to throw bones to his critics. It was disappointing Thursday that he ordered the development of a scaled-down capsule from the scuttled Constellation project.
Obama sweetened the pot for Central Florida by announcing $40 million to help the region cope with the loss of thousands of jobs once the shuttle program ends. Combined with the billions Obama would spend updating the space center and supporting commercial launches, the region should be in a position to retain a healthy chunk of its highly trained workforce. But Obama and Congress also need to look beyond the next five years. Any Mars mission is a generation away. Getting there will require major financial commitments over the long term.