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President Obama's JFK Moment

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Thank you, Mr. President.

That's what we should say to President Barack Obama in light of his Fiscal Year 2011 space budget for NASA. The President courageously decided to redirect our nation's space policy away from the foolish and underfunded Moon race that has consumed NASA for more than six years, aiming instead at boosting the agency's budget by more than $1 billion more per year over the next five years, topping off at $100 billion for NASA between now and 2015. And he directed NASA to spend a billion per year on buying rides for American astronauts aboard new, commercially developed space vehicles-that's American space vehicles. Other NASA funds will go into developing and testing new revolutionary technologies that we can use in living and working on Mars and its moons.

The Aldrin cycler (which I proposed two decades ago), your time has finally come! Those technologies will sustain long term, deep space exploration in the years ahead-just like my concept for a cycling spaceship moving between Earth and Mars. For that, we don't need the Moon!

But this change in direction will not be easy -- like turning a big ship around in a small space. For those who will think about opposing this new plan, let me explain why I think it's a necessary step forward, not back. Having walked on the Moon, I know something about what we need to explore, really explore, in space.

For the past six years America's civil space program has been aimed at returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. That's the plan announced by President George W. Bush in January of 2004. That plan also called for developing the technologies that would support human expeditions to Mars, our ultimate destination in space. But two things happened along the way since that announcement, which became known as the Vision for Space Exploration.

First, the President failed to fully fund the program, as he had initially promised. As a result, each year the development of the rockets and spacecraft called for in the plan slipped further and further behind. Second and most importantly, NASA virtually eliminated the technology development effort for advanced space systems. Equally as bad, NASA also raided the Earth and space science budgets in the struggle to keep the program, named Project Constellation, on track. Even that effort fell short.

To keep the focus on the return to the Moon, NASA pretty much abandoned all hope of preparing for Mars exploration. It looked like building bases on the Moon would consume all of NASA's resources. Yet despite much complaining, neither a Republican-controlled nor a Democratic-controlled Congress was willing or able to add back those missing and needed funds. The date of the so-called return to the Moon slipped from 2020 to heaven-knows when. At the same time, there was no money to either extend the life of the Space Shuttle, due to be retired this year, or that of the International Space Station, due to be dropped into the Pacific Ocean in 2015, a scant handful of years after it was completed.

Enter the new Obama administration. Before deciding what to do about national space policy, Obama set up an outside review panel of space experts, headed up by my friend Norm Augustine, former head of Lockheed Martin and a former government official. Augustine's team took testimony and presentations from many people with ideas on what way forward NASA should take (that group included me). In October, it presented its report to the President and to Dr. John Holdren, Obama's science advisor and a friend and colleague of mine. The report strongly suggested the nation move away from the troubled rocket program, called Ares 1, and both extend the life of the space station and develop commercial ways of sending astronauts and cargoes up to the station. And it suggested a better way to spend our taxpayer dollars would be not focused on the Moon race, but on something it called a "Flexible Path." Flexible in the sense that it would redirect NASA towards developing the capability of voyaging to more distant locations in space, such as rendezvous with possibly threatening asteroids, or comets, or even flying by Mars to land on its moons. Many different destinations and missions would be enabled by that approach, not just one.

But with the limited NASA budget consumed by the Moon, no funds were available for this development effort -- until now. Now President Obama has signaled that new direction -- what I'm calling Flexible plus, containing much of the steps called for in the Augustine report. If Congress agrees, we'll turn over all space taxi services to the private sector and aim NASA at fully using the station -- extended to at least 2020 in Obama's plan -- and spending a billion dollars a year in creating these new private sector spaceships. When the time comes to start building deep space transports and refueling rocket tankers, it will be the commercial industry that steps up, not another government-owned, government managed enterprise. And if we want to use the Moon as a stepping stone in the future, we'll have to join with our international partners for the effort. No more "go it alone" space projects. If you or your children or grandkids ever hope to fly into orbit, these new vehicles are their only hope for a ride to space.

There is little reason to believe that Congress would add this kind of budget boost to the Bush lunar program, since it hasn't done that for the past six years. But if we really wanted to establish new companies and create new jobs in the space business, then Obama's idea is clearly the way to go. America's space entrepreneurs have all the talent and tools they need to take advantage of the proposed Obama plan. Even our rocket pads at the Kennedy Space Center, where the same pads from which Apollo 11 was launched more than 40 years ago are still used, will get a user-friendly makeover. And NASA will do what it does best -- preparing the capability to explore.

I know that change can be a scary thing. And I know the forces of the existing Constellation program are already preparing to fight the Obama plan. But I hope when the emotion subsides, my friends in Congress will see as I see the wisdom and strength that this new approach will give our nation's space program.

I'll be speaking out about the plan more in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I ask my friends and readers to get behind Obama's new policy. Join with me and help usher in a new age of space. A space program that truly goes somewhere! With his deeds, not only words, President Obama has revitalized our struggling space program. His has been a "Profile in Courage" when it comes to space and science. And that's why I call it his JFK moment.