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Restructuring NASA Sets Sights On Mars

April 9, 2010

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed that they will scrap the space shuttle program and cancel a return flight to the moon, announcing at a Thursday press conference that the agency’s primary focus will shift to sending a manned mission to Mars.

Furthermore, NASA will help fund and oversee private sector development of space taxi technology and will create and launch a series of satellites that will orbit the Earth and monitor global warming.

According to a fact sheet jointly released by NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the budget, which is currently set to increase by $2 billion next year, to $19 billion total, “Enhances the Nation’s global climate change research and monitoring system, accelerating decadal survey missions and re-flying a satellite that will identify global carbon sources and sinks” and “expands NASA’s aeronautics efforts to bring cleaner, safer, and more efficient transportation to our skies.”

However, the end of the space shuttle program will result in the loss of 9,000 jobs at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. That location will now be in charge of helping commercial spacecraft development which ultimately will be used to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). President Obama has committed $6 billion to the Kennedy Space Center to establish the new oversight program over the next five years.

Other space centers are also receiving new assignments under the plan announced Thursday. Like the Cape Canaveral facility, the Houston, Texas-based Johnson Space Center will also be home to a five-year, $6 billion program to help develop new technology. Additionally, the Marshall Space Center in Alabama will be assigned the task of creating new heavy lift rockets to transport equipment needed for manned space missions outside of the planet’s orbit. NASA space centers in California, Maryland, and Ohio will be in charge of the new climate change observation initiatives.

The cancellation of the Constellation mission–former President George W. Bush’s previously announced plan to revisit the moon–was featured in the budget. According to a joint NASA-OSTP fact, “An independent panel found that Constellation was years behind schedule and would require large budget increases to land even a handful of astronauts back on the Moon before 2030.”

On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver held a teleconference with members of the media. During that phone conference, Bolden called the allocation of the budget money “step one” of the new NASA initiatives.

The budget must receive Congressional approval before it goes into effect.

Despite the loss of jobs due to the ending of the space shuttle program, Bolden said, “We’re expanding the amount of programs that we have so that we can try to put people to work who are interested in being part of the space program.”

“Are we going to be able to employ everybody that used to work in shuttle? No, we’re not, but that was never a vision,” he added. “A very serious and real concern for everyone is the jobs, but this is what we call progress. Unfortunately, if you look at every area of technology in this country, as you advance, there are fewer and fewer manual-type jobs”¦ We are expanding the number of programs we have, so we can try to put people to do work who want to be involved in the space program.”

The new shift on private sector space development has already started to pay dividends. In March, the VSS Enterprise–an experimental craft designed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in order to offer space flights to paying customers–successfully completed an inaugural flight.

“Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt (Rutan of Scaled Composites) and his team have developed for us,” said Branson. “Today was another major step along that road and a testament to US engineering and innovation.”

President Barack Obama first announced his intention to cancel the moon return flight and shelve the space shuttle program in February–a move that was met by criticism by some former NASA astronauts, including Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan, the last American to step foot on the lunar surface.

During a March Foundation for Science and Technology conference at the Royal Society in London, Lovell said that scrapping the Constellation program would “have catastrophic consequences in our ability to explore space” and that officials hadn’t “thought through the consequences.”

“I thought we’d have gone back long before now,” added Cernan, who said that he was “disappointed” to still be the last man on the moon nearly four decades after his participation in the Apollo 17 mission. “I think America has a responsibility to maintain its leadership in technology and its moral leadership… to seek knowledge. Curiosity’s the essence of human existence.”

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