Obama draws industry into space launches

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It’s a new day for space – and for American industry.

President Barack Obama outlined his vision for the future of the space program, placing explicit emphasis on the new role that innovation in the commercial sector will play.

During the speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Obama tried to ease fears about his “grand plan” for the space program.

“No one is more committed to human space exploration than I am,” he said. “We will have more astronauts in space in the next decade, and they will be going farther, faster and staying longer.”

He defended the decision to end the Constellation program that would take humans to the moon.

“To put it bluntly, we’ve been there,” he said. “And there are a lot of other places to go in space.”

The president said he no longer wanted to put specific destinations in place for the space program – instead he wanted to achieve the goal of human exploration, even having people live indefinitely in space.

Obama addressed job creations and fears of lost jobs on the Space Coast of Florida. He said he has proposed $40 million for an economic development program in Florida, and expects the plan to be available no later than August.

“I understand there is fear about what happens next,” he said. “But new industries will grow from this plan; from the role industry will play. I expect 10,000 jobs to be created in the next decade.”

The commercial sector will have a larger role in space exploration than ever before. Obama is hoping industry will develop ways to send both cargo and crew to the International Space Station – and will do it without NASA’s help.

The move will allow NASA to spend more of its budget – with an increase of $6 billion during the next five years – on research and development and less on operations.

“A large portion of the budget is spent on operations,” said Robert Walker, speaking to an audience at the Space Symposium immediately after the president’s speech. “And if they no longer have to do the day-to-day operations of launching the shuttle, then they’ll be able to focus more on development, research, cutting edge techniques that only NASA can do.”

Walker, a 20-year Congressman and a lobbyist for the space industry, and Lon Levin, former president of the Space Foundation, both gave the president high marks for the speech and for his goals.

“It was extremely important that the president added his personal signature to the course ahead,” Walker said. “The president’s articulation added poetry to the overall mission, and that’s important in politics.”

The president also announced his decision to keep parts of the Orion project – using it as an emergency vehicle to remove astronauts from the space station quickly.

That decision is not only a political compromise, Walker said, but it made practical sense as well.

Should there be a fight over the budget in Congress – and all indications are likely that there will be – a supplemental budget will go in place for the next year, with all the money still appropriated for both Orion and Constellation.

“That means NASA can still move ahead,” Walker said. “It won’t have to wait, because Constellation is gone, but Orion still exists. It’s a savvy move.”

Although whether or not industry is ready to take up the mantle offered by the president remains to be seen. Wall Street only acts if there is clearly a benefit, Levin said.

“We’ve learned along the way until there is substantial investment, it is impossible to go to Wall Street and get money that is needed for bigger enterprise,” he said. “A launch industry will only be successful with the government committed. Once they are assured of that commitment – investment funds will be available.”

Levin said that once new technology is discovered, the nation will see a new marketplace develop, much like what happened once the shuttle program stated.

“Business endeavor is going to be important,” Levin said. “The president talked about how when we went to the moon, we started a perilous journey. And in many ways we’re there again. This is taking a chance. He’s hoping that we can develop the industrial base, and he’s counting on industry to step in with its own ability to innovate – and innovate quickly.”