Obama brushes off criticism, says he's '100 percent' committed to NASA

Despite the "harsh words" of high-profile former astronauts, President Barack Obama on Thursday pledged to continue to fund NASA and manned space exploration, though he will dramatically revise the programs.

Obama, speaking at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., sought to ease the minds of workers soon to be displaced when the Space Shuttle program ends and to win over critics who say the new policy's reliance on the private sector will end U.S. dominance in space.

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Obama told audience members and skeptics who weren't there, including Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, that his budget includes a $6 billion increase for NASA funding over the next five years "even as we have instituted a freeze on discretionary spending and sought to make cuts elsewhere in the budget."

"I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future," Obama said to applause.

Lawmakers have joined former astronauts in their skepticism of Obama's shift in priorities for the program.

Former astronaut and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) joined the president for his trip to Florida. He said that as far as Obama has come in listening to the concerns of lawmakers, "it's not enough."

"As with most presidential proposals, Congress will not just rubber-stamp it," Nelson said. "So we’ll take what he’s saying to our committee, and then we’ll change some things."

Obama has already made some concessions to Florida and Texas lawmakers and the space community by continuing to fund the space station for another five years and keeping the Orion vehicle alive.

But on other issues, Obama will clearly meet resistance from Democrats and Republicans who represent states that are home to the nation's space programs.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said Thursday that Obama's policy changes "keep America grounded."

Nelson was flatly defiant on some of Obama's proposed changes.

"We are not going to wait five years before we make a decision on the heavy-lift rockets. I think we can make the decision much sooner," Nelson said. "And we’re going to keep testing the monster rockets at the Kennedy Space Center."

On the minefield of issues Obama negotiated Thursday, job losses for workers on the shuttle program drew much attention as the economy continues its slow recovery.

To that end, Obama announced $40 million in worker training for those who will lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends. And Obama pledged that his new policies would create 2,500 jobs along the Florida space coast over the next two years.

There are only three more schedule flights for U.S. space shuttles, a decision made under former President George W. Bush's administration, which Obama made clear on Thursday.

"This is based on a decision made six years ago, not six months ago," Obama said in the critical swing state of Florida.

Armstrong and other former space commanders have been highly critical of Obama's plans to scrap a space mission to the moon and other programs that the White House says are over budget and missing deadlines.

With supporter and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the audience, Obama said "pretty bluntly" of the moon, "we've been there before."

"There's a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do," Obama said. "So I believe it's more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach and operate at a series of increasingly demanding targets while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward."   

Instead, the president said, the federal government should put more emphasis on helping the private sector to develop new technologies that will allow for more manned space flights with new destinations, including asteroids and the moons of Mars. Obama said a manned mission could orbit Mars and return to Earth safely by the mid-2030s.

"And a landing on Mars will follow, and I expect to be around to see it," Obama said.

The president pledged an end to the uncertainty facing NASA, "which has risen and fallen with the political winds." Uncertainty, he said, can be seen "in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives, to provide the resources to meet those objectives and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century."

Because of that, Obama said, NASA cannot just "continue on the same path." 

"We want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for NASA," Obama said. "Now, yes, pursuing this new strategy will require that we revise the old strategy."

White House spokesman Bill Burton acknowledged to reporters on Air Force One that the president would need to explain his change in policies because of the reports that have come out in anticipation of the president's revisions.

"The president’s view is that every time we put out a new policy, especially when we’re changing course to some extent, it requires a lot of explanation," Burton said. 
 
Burton added: "The space program that was in place when he came into office had made some determinations about the direction of our nation’s space policies that the president thought could be refined and moved in a different direction."

Obama was scheduled to fly to Miami after leaving Cape Canaveral for two Democratic National Committee (DNC) fundraisers before returning to Washington on Thursday night.

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