Obama outlines plan for space programs

LOS ANGELES — At the launch center where the U.S. had dominated space travel over the past half century, President Obama on Thursday laid out a new vision for the nation's space ambitions, focusing on future deep space missions rather than a return trip to the moon.

The proposal differs significantly from the austere program Obama laid out last January when he terminated the moon program. Critics had attacked the plan as a historic withdrawal of U.S. ambitions in space travel just as China and other developing nations are gearing up to retrace U.S. steps on the moon.

Obama's latest blueprint includes a $3 billion research effort for a new heavy lift rocket that could carry astronauts to asteroids, Mars or other possible deep space destinations, as well as a new reliance on private companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in low earth orbit.

"I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future," Obama said, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as he sought to reassure a conference of top National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials, lawmakers and scientists who were discussing an agenda for the U.S. space program.

"Space exploration is not a luxury, not an afterthought in America's brighter future," Obama said. "It is an essential part of that quest."

Even though the Obama plan included a budget increase of $6 billion over the next five years, objections rose from former astronauts, politicians, the aerospace industry and the nation's legions of space cadets.

After his speech, Obama toured a commercial launch center set up by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, for its flights.

Obama asserted that the new reliance on private industry would create 10,000 jobs in a new space transport industry, a prospect that won plaudits from entrepreneurs but drew skepticism from longtime NASA analysts.