Space experts say the White House's new plan for space exploration is a boost to private companies that are developing cutting-edge technologies needed in coming years. New funding may propel research and create thousands of new jobs.
When President Barack Obama spoke this week at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he wanted to assure NASA veterans that he is committed to human space flight. With only three space shuttle flights remaining, critics have said it could be decades before the U.S. space agency can develop a vehicle to take its place.
But the president said he hopes to see bold new missions, including trips to nearby asteroids and Mars, during his lifetime. He said a key to that goal is encouraging private companies to develop new technologies and operate cargo flights and manned missions into space.
John Logsdon, a member of NASA's advisory council, says the private sector has been waiting for that kind of message. "This approach is a signal to the private space community that they can look to government partnerships, government as a user, or even government as an investment partner as they go forward," he said.
One private partner may be the Space X company, founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. On his trip to Kennedy Space Center, President Obama met with Musk and visited the company's Falcon rocket, which is set for a test launch next month.
So far, Space X and other private firms have relied on private money. But the president's new plan includes $6 billion to fund research and development into new rocket engines and other components.
That funding is a major turnaround in the U.S. space budget, says John Gedmark of the Washington-based trade group Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "Technology development funding had pretty much been zeroed out under the previous plan," he said.
Gedmark says a privately funded study shows that an increase in NASA's budget this year will create nearly 12,000 new jobs. He says new funding for private space firms will create even more jobs.
Critics of the president's new approach say it is a mistake to rely on private space companies, because it could take years for them to develop a rocket capable of carrying astronauts.
Once the space shuttle is retired this year, the only way to get astronauts into orbit will be aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. Under current plans, NASA has agreed to pay Russia to send U.S. astronauts on missions, including trips to the space station.
Supporters of the president's new plan say the U.S. should encourage private firms to help share that role with Russia. Norm Augustine recently led a panel of space experts that reviewed U.S. space plans. "The question arises: do we have less faith in the U.S. aerospace industry to carry our astronauts to orbit, than we have to the Russian space industry to carry our astronauts to orbit?"
Experts agree that the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union is over, and space missions depend more and more on international cooperation.
John Logsdon says President Obama's new space plan is a challenge not just to U.S. firms, but to space programs in other nations. "Countries around the world will have an opportunity to get involved in this. It is not a U.S. only undertaking like Apollo was," he said.
Logsdon says Europe, Russia and Japan will continue to play key roles, as they do on the International Space Station. But fledgling space programs in India, China and Brazil may also join with the United States to explore space beyond the Earth's orbit.