Following criticism, Obama to host NASA forum on 'next steps'

President Barack Obama will join space experts at a conference in Florida next month to discuss the administration's "new vision" for NASA, the White House announced Sunday.

The April 15 meeting will focus on NASA's "next steps, and the new technologies, new jobs, and new industries it will create," according to the administration.


But the White House's latest forum arrives after weeks of intense scrutiny of the president's proposed 2011 space budget, which would expand some of NASA's research programs while severely curtailing its manned-spaceflight plans.

While the White House did propose an additional $8 billion for NASA as part of its new budget, some lawmakers are apoplectic that the boost comes at the expense of NASA's Constellation program -- a project commissioned in 2005 by former President George W. Bush, who tasked the agency with plotting a second trip to the Moon.

An independent review found that program "fundamentally un-executable," according to the White House, in part because of technological constraints and funding limits. The Obama administration thus decided to shift NASA money elsewhere, primarily to focus more on short-term projects in research and development, officials have said.

But a number of lawmakers who represent states that house NASA bases -- including Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) and Kay Baily Hutchison (R-Tx.) -- have since charged it is the White House, not NASA, that lacks a clear mission.

"Our greatest accomplishment in human space flight were gained because President Kennedy said we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of this decade," Vitter said of the president's "radical" NASA budget during a hearing last month.

"President Kennedy didn't say, 'We're going to spend a few billion dollars on some really unique research and development,'" he said.

Consequently, the fallout has put the Obama administration on the defensive, even as its top space advisers insist manned space travel is still NASA's ultimate, albeit long-term, goal.

NASA's conference in Florida this April will reinforce that point, according to the White House's release on Sunday.

"A foundational element of this new strategy is to invest in the development of a targeted set of inter-related technologies and capabilities that can help us travel from the Earth’s cradle to our nearby Solar System neighborhood in a more effective and affordable way, thus laying the foundation to support journeys to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually to Mars," according to the announcement.