President Obama will seek to promote his vision for the nation’s human space flight program on Thursday, just two days after three storied Apollo astronauts — including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon — called the new plans “devastating.” In an announcement to be made at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the president will personally talk for the first time about the sweeping upheaval of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s human spaceflight program outlined in his 2011 budget request: canceling the current program that is to send astronauts back to the Moon, investing in commercial companies to provide transportation to orbit and developing new space technologies. A senior administration official said Mr. Obama would describe a vision “that unlocks our ambitions and expands our frontiers in space, ultimately meaning the challenge of sending humans to Mars.” The official spoke with administration approval, but on the condition of anonymity so that the comments would not upstage the president’s remarks. Mr. Obama’s budget request called for the cancellation of Orion crew capsule, which was to be used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and then to the Moon, as well as other components of the current program known as Constellation. The president will propose that a simpler version of the Orion be used as a lifeboat for the space station. Russian Soyuz capsules currently provide that function. Because the Orion lifeboat would not carry astronauts to the space station, it could be launched on existing rockets. The official said Mr. Obama would also announce that he would commit to deciding in 2015 on a design of a heavy-lift rocket for NASA. “This means major work on the heavy-lift rocket at least two years earlier than Constellation,” the official said. Astronauts would leave Earth orbit in the early 2020s, the official said, destined for the Moon, asteroids and eventually Mars. Mr. Obama will also announce $40 million devoted to helping Florida adjust economically after the retirement of the space shuttles, scheduled for this year. The official also pointed to a study conducted by the Tauri Group, a consulting firm, and financed by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group, which estimated the president’s plan would create 10,000 jobs nationally over the next five years. NASA estimates 2,500 would be in Florida along the Space Coast. The administration’s plan has been cheered by so-called New Space advocates who believe that traditional NASA programs are too big, too expensive and too slow and that turning to entrepreneurs will spur a vibrant new space industry. But even many of those who support the new strategy say the administration has not done a convincing job of explaining it. “There has not been a well-articulated plan and vision,” said Edward F. Crawley, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served on the blue-ribbon panel that reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight program last year. Others find the essentials of the plan flawed, not just the presentation. In a letter to Mr. Obama, reported Tuesday by NBC News, Mr. Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11, along with James A. Lovell Jr., the commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene A. Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, wrote, “For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.” In a letter released Monday, 27 NASA veterans — including Eugene F. Kranz, the flight director who presided over the safe return of the crew aboard the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft in 1970 — asked Mr. Obama to reconsider the “misguided proposal.” The reception from Congress has so far been mostly chilly but mostly from representatives in states that are home to the NASA centers that would be most hurt by the changes — the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Johnson Space Center in Texas and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. However, some members of Congress from non-NASA states, like David Wu, Democrat of Oregon, have also criticized the plan, and only one, Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, has enthusiastically endorsed it. NASA’s budget — $18.7 billion this year — consumes a 0.5 percent sliver of the federal budget. Under Mr. Obama’s plans, NASA would receive slightly more next year — $19 billion next year — but, in canceling Constellation, much of the money would be moved away from human spaceflight to other programs like Earth science and aeronautics. Administration officials have noted that the budget request adds $6.1 billion to NASA’s budget over next five years, which they say demonstrates the president’s support to the agency. But that follows a $3.4 billion cut that Mr. Obama made last year in the five-year projection for the Constellation part of NASA’s budget.
By KENNETH CHANG /NYT