President Barack Obama is reviving the NASA crew capsule concept that he had canceled with the rest of the moon program earlier this year, in a move that will mean more jobs and less reliance on the Russians, officials said Tuesday.
The space capsule, called Orion, still won't go to the moon. It will go unmanned to the International Space Station to stand by as an emergency vehicle to return astronauts home, officials told The Associated Press.
Administration officials also said NASA will speed up development of a massive rocket. It would have the power to blast crew and cargo far from Earth, although no destination has been chosen yet. The rocket would be ready to launch several years earlier than under the old moon plan.
Officials pointed out that Obama's budget plans would boost NASA spending by $6 billion over the next five years, potentially creating 2,500 jobs in Florida. "This new strategy means more money for NASA, more jobs for the country, more astronaut time in space and more investments in innovation," Reuters quoted a senior White House official as saying.
Tuesday's announcements were made in advance of Obama's visit to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday. They are designed to counter criticism of the Obama administration's space plans as being low on detail, physical hardware and local jobs. The most prominent critic is Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who said the White House's space policy would be "devastating" in a letter obtained exclusively by NBC News.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to detract from Obama's policy speech on Thursday.
The president killed President George W. Bush's moon mission, called Constellation, as being unsustainable. In a major shift, the Obama space plan relies on private companies to fly to the space station. But it also extends the space station's life by five years and puts billions into research to eventually develop new government rocketships for future missions to a nearby asteroid, the moon, Martian moons or other points in space. Those stops would be stepping stones on an eventual mission to Mars.
Veteran Apollo astronauts and former senior NASA managers have been attacking the Obama plan — before the latest revision — as the death of U.S. leadership in space. More than two dozen Apollo-era veterans signed a letter calling the plan a "misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future."
Even with the revival of the Orion crew capsule, the overall moon return mission initiated by Bush — which involved a base camp — remains dead. And the revived Orion, slimmed-down from earlier versions, won't be used as originally intended, to land on the moon.
The capsule will be developed and launched — unmanned — on an existing rocket to the space station, one senior NASA official told The Associated Press. The Orion would remain at the space station and be used as an emergency escape ship back to Earth. That would mean NASA wouldn't have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsule to return astronauts to Earth.
Launching Orion on unmanned existing rockets — such as Atlas or Deltas — would save money and time.
The Obama plan also will speed up development of a larger heavy-lift rocket that would take cargo and crew away from Earth orbit to the moon, asteroids and other places.
In his budget proposal, Obama said NASA would spend billions of dollars on various research programs to eventually develop breakthroughs to make such trips cheaper and faster. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that elements of the Constellation program, including the Orion vehicle and the heavy-lift rocket development effort, might be incorporated into the space agency's new approach. But critics called for more specifics on NASA's development plans.
Now the president is committed to choosing a single heavy-lift rocket design by 2015 and then starting its construction, officials said.
This commitment means NASA would launch a heavy rocket years before it was supposed to under the old Constellation plan, the officials said. However, it will be different from the Apollo-like Ares V rocket that the Constellation plan would have used. Instead it will incorporate newer concepts such as refueling in orbit or using inflatable habitats.
Overall, the Obama program will mean 2,500 more Florida jobs than the old Bush program, White House officials said. Reuters reported that Obama would dedicate $40 million of the funds requested for the Constellation transition to transform the regional economy around NASA's Florida facilities and prepare its workforce for the opportunities ahead.
Also on Tuesday, the commercial space industry released a study that said the president's plan for private ships to fly astronauts to and from the space station would result in 11,800 jobs.
The continuation of the Orion and heavy-lift programs was portrayed as a strategy to keep NASA on a stable course toward the development of new space vehicles. "We wanted to take the best of what was available from Constellation," a NASA official told AP as part of a White House briefing.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg hailed the revival of a scaled-down Orion program as a "prudent compromise."
"Having a modified version and a real schedule preserves the strengths and skills of the team," Oberg said.
This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com.