KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Pointing to Mars and asteroids as destinations, President Obama on Thursday forcefully countered criticisms that he was trying to end the nation’s human spaceflight program.
Luke Sharrett/The New York Times
President Obama toured a launching pad with Elon Musk, the chief executive of Space Exploration Technologies., or SpaceX.
This was the first time that the president had lent his personal political capital in an increasingly testy fight over the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am,” he said in a speech to about 200 attendees of a White House-sponsored space conference here.
But he was unwavering in insisting that NASA must change in sending people into space. “We’ve got to do it in a smart way,” Mr. Obama said, “and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve been doing and thinking that’s going to get us where we want to go.”
Instead of earlier vague assurances by Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, and other administration officials that NASA would eventually venture beyond Earth orbit, Mr. Obama gave dates and destinations for astronauts. But the goals would be achieved long after he leaves office: a visit to an asteroid after 2025, reaching Mars by the mid-2030s.
“Step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do,” Mr. Obama said. “In short, 50 years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time.”
Mr. Obama noted that President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to land on the Moon in 1961 — the year the current president was born. But the plan Mr. Obama laid out for now through the 2030s was unlike the Kennedy vision: It was a call for private industry to innovate its way to Mars, rather than a call for a national effort to demonstrate American predominance.
Mr. Obama’s budget request to Congress in February proposed a major shift for NASA: canceling the Constellation program, started five years ago to send astronauts back to the Moon, and turning to private companies for carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.
Strikingly, Mr. Obama used the speech to blame his predecessors for lacking leadership on space policy and the critics of his own plan for failing to recognize that times have changed. NASA’s budgets, he noted, have “risen and fallen with the political winds.” That appeared to be a shot at President George W. Bush, who announced a new plan for NASA after the Columbia disaster and barely mentioned space policy again for the rest of his presidency. And he argued that turning to private entrepreneurs would result in more space flights and more astronauts in orbit than the space plan he inherited.
Some members of Congress, particularly those in states that are home to NASA centers working on Constellation, have objected to the change, and the speech did not sway those who have been most vociferously opposed.
“There’s no concrete plan, no deadlines to make it happen,” said Representative Pete Olson, Republican of Texas, whose district includes the Johnson Space Center. “It didn’t change my opinion at all.”
Mr. Obama’s speech contained few surprises as White House officials previewed it to reporters two days ago.
Among the small concessions to critics, Mr. Obama is now proposing to revive the Constellation’s Orion crew capsule as a stripped-down version to use as a lifeboat for the space station.
“This Orion effort will be part of the technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama promised $40 million to help retrain workers in and around the Kennedy Space Center who will lose their jobs when the space shuttles are retired. He also stated that NASA would start developing a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, a promise that presumes the president’s re-election in 2012.
The tweaks appear to reflect political calculations. Florida and its 27 electoral votes are a likely key battleground in the next presidential election. On board Air Force One with the president on the flight to the Kennedy Space Center were two Democratic members of Congress from Florida: Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Suzanne M. Kosmas, whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents parts of Houston close to the Johnson Space Center, was one of the attendees. Mr. Olson, a Republican, did not receive an invitation to the conference.
Whether appeals for loyalty from Democrats would succeed in gaining Congressional support is unclear. NASA has traditionally received strong support from both political parties, and the opposition to Mr. Obama’s plans has also been bipartisan.
Ms. Kosmas, for example, is a co-sponsor of a bill to extend operations of the space shuttles, and Mr. Nelson has pushed for continued work on Constellation rockets as precursors to a heavy-lift rocket.
“I’m encouraged,” Mr. Nelson said, although he said he would continue pushing to continue development of the Constellation rockets.
Reviving Orion could mollify Lockheed Martin executives upset over the proposed cancellation. The Orion work is done largely at the Johnson Space Center and at Lockheed Martin facilities in Boulder, Colo.
While using Orion as a space station lifeboat may be politically savvy, some space experts, particularly those associated with the Constellation program, said the economic and technical rationale for the decision eluded them. It would take about $8 billion to finish the development of the current incarnation of Orion; a simpler version would most likely still cost several billion dollars.
“In the end, this seems like an expensive proposition that makes simply continuing to use the Russians for crew rescue look like a bargain,” Michael D. Griffin, the former NASA administrator who oversaw the creation of Constellation, wrote in an e-mail message.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, cheered the president’s speech and policy. He said the Dragon capsule that his company is developing could also serve as a lifeboat, and its design would also allow six-month stays at the station.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting/NYT