Yesterday the White House hosted a “Twitter Town Hall”, where President Obama answered questions directed to him though Twitter. (Unlike the questions, the president’s answers were not restricted to 140 characters.) While much of the forum dealt with economic issues, one of the questions–perhaps not surprisingly, given that the final shuttle mission is set to launch on Friday–dealt with space policy: “Now that the space shuttle is gone, where does America stand in space exploration?”. The president’s response, from the official transcript:
We are still a leader in space exploration. But, frankly, I have been pushing NASA to revamp its vision. The shuttle did some extraordinary work in low-orbit experiments, the International Space Station, moving cargo. It was an extraordinary accomplishment and we’re very proud of the work that it did. But now what we need is that next technological breakthrough.
We’re still using the same models for space travel that we used with the Apollo program 30, 40 years ago. And so what we’ve said is, rather than keep on doing the same thing, let’s invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us places faster, allow human space flight to last longer.
And what you’re seeing now is NASA I think redefining its mission. And we’ve set a goal to let’s ultimately get to Mars. A good pit stop is an asteroid. I haven’t actually — we haven’t identified the actual asteroid yet, in case people are wondering. (Laughter.) But the point is, let’s start stretching the boundaries so we’re not doing the same thing over and over again, but rather let’s start thinking about what’s the next horizon, what’s the next frontier out there.
But in order to do that, we’re actually going to need some technological breakthroughs that we don’t have yet. And what we can do is for some of this low-orbit stuff, some of the more routine space travel — obviously no space travel is routine, but it could become more routine over time — let’s allow the private sector to get in so that they can, for example, send these low-Earth orbit vehicles into space and we may be able to achieve a point in time where those of you who are just dying to go into space, you can buy a ticket, and a private carrier can potentially take you up there, while the government focuses on the big breakthroughs that require much larger investments and involve much greater risk.
That’s a summation of previous policy on space, including his speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. While the president argued that NASA needs to stop “using the same models for space travel” that date back to Apollo, the NASA authorization act he signed last fall does include some elements, like the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, that harken back to those old models and technologies. And as for his focus on technological breakthroughs, at almost the same time as he spoke, House appropriators released a draft FY12 appropriations bill that would cut the administration’s proposed spending on NASA’s space technology program by over 60 percent.