Obama’s better plan for deep-space exploration

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Space travel has become fairly routine.

Astronauts regularly blast off into space, tinker around on the International Space Station and do a bit of research — and most of us are generally unaware of any of it.

That wasn’t always the case.

Americans were at one time singularly gripped by the notion of space travel. Space exploration was borne of enthusiasm, competition and promise.

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, an estimated 500 million people worldwide watched in awe.

When was the last time you rearranged your schedule to watch a space shuttle launch?

President Obama tried to reignite our collective imaginations last week during a speech from the Kennedy Space Center, and a lot of what he said is worth cheering.

The president, however, caught a lot of flak because his vision includes retiring space shuttle missions and ending the Constellation program, which had a goal of putting astronauts on the moon again.

Some of the criticism is well-deserved. Having U.S. astronauts hitching rides to the space station aboard Russian crafts is no way to build national pride.

But that’s only temporary. Eventually, we’ll be sending more people into space than we had ever planned.

Other elements of Obama’s plan also make good sense, especially at a time when tax dollars are tight.

The president, who is regularly accused of expanding government is, at least in this case, proposing shrinking government’s role in space exploration and allowing private industry to step into the void.

The hope is that, as a nation, we’ll now try to develop less-expensive ways to travel into space and to think longer and harder about how we can get to Mars — a prospect more thrilling than a return to the moon.

The president also promised $40 million to help retrain workers in and around the Kennedy Space Center who will lose their jobs when the space shuttles are retired.

He also said NASA would start developing a heavy-lift rocket by 2015.

Lawmakers from Texas, where the space industry has long thrived, have come out against Obama’s approach.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn and former astronaut Neil Armstrong, along with a host of other political leaders, penned a letter to Obama this week, urging him to consider the thousands of job losses that will result under his plan.

Obama has offered some employment concessions, preserving the Orion manned capsule program, which would save some jobs.

Jobs are important, but what the president is offering is a way to get to a new level without losing ground.

“We’ve been there before,” Obama said of the moon. “There’s a lot more of space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do.”

Investing in private industry, as Obama hopes to do, will allow us to shore up waning resources.

Colorado is No. 2 in the nation in terms of space jobs. There are roughly 90 such space businesses in Colorado Springs and some 360 in the state.

An investment in the space industry is an investment in the local economy.

America’s space dominance is in question these days; the status quo is not working. We need to give the president’s vision a shot.