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Obama voices support for space funding, leadership

Posted: October 7, 2009

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President Barack Obama signaled Wednesday that the White House will likely approve increased funding for NASA to carry out a new U.S. manned flight goal beyond Earth orbit, but he gave no hint about which of several options will be pursued.

An artist's concept shows the proposed Earth Departure Stage with the docked Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA
The new manned flight goal will be drawn from options developed by the Human Space Flight Plans Committee headed by Norman Augustine retired head of Lockheed Martin. They are due at the White House by the end of the month.

Obama's comments came during a White House ceremony announcing the winners of the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

He made the achievements of NASA and other space developments a focal point of the presentation, although no NASA personnel received the award this year. Obama also made a point of introducing together new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as well as Dr. John Holdren, Presidential Science Advisor.

Holdren has openly discussed the possibility of new space cooperation with China, including the use of Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft for the transport of joint U.S. and Chinese astronaut crews to the International Space Station in the out years following phase out of the space shuttle by 2010-2011.

"This nation owes all of you an enormous debt of gratitude far greater than any medal can bestow," he told the medal winners. "We recognize your contributions, but we also celebrate the incredible contributions of the scientific endeavor itself. We see the promise -- not just for our economy but for our health and well-being -- in the human capacity for creativity and ingenuity. And we are reminded of the power of free and open inquiry, which is not only at the heart of all of your work, but at the heart of this experiment we call America," the president said.

Obama said that to remain competitive it is critical for the U.S. to increase federally funded research and development projects and that he wants to significantly boost funding for such programs to a sustained level of 3% of Gross National Product (GDP). The current level is about 2.4% according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"Throughout our history, amid tumult and war and against tough odds, this nation has always looked toward the future and then led the way," said Obama.

"It was during the darkest days of the Civil War that President Lincoln established the land grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences. And it was in the years that followed the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, that the United States would create DARPA, NASA, and the National Defense Education Act, which helped improve math and science education from grade school to graduate school," he said.

"Today, we face more complex challenges than generations past. A medical system that holds the promise of unlocking new cures -- attached to a health care system that has the potential to bankrupt families and businesses. A system of energy that powers our economy but endangers our planet. Threats to our security that seek to exploit the very interconnectedness and openness that's so essential to our prosperity. And challenges in a global marketplace which link the trader on Wall Street to the homeowner on Main Street, and the office worker in America to the factory worker in China -- we all share an opportunity, but we also all share in crisis," the President said.

Obama also said he will not allow federal funding for non national science and technology programs to compete for the technology money.

"At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we can't afford to invest in science, that it's a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I could not disagree more," said Obama.

"Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, and our health, and our way of life than it has ever been. And the winners we are recognizing only underscore that point, with achievements in physics and medicine, computer science and cognitive science, energy technology and biotechnology. We need to ensure that we are encouraging the next generation of discoveries -- and the next generation of discoverers," said Obama.

White House comment on the new NASA options are expected soon after the Administration officially receives the report by late October. But it has already received a detailed summary of Augustine's options. Science Advisor Holdren has also already held unofficial sessions with the Augustine team to gain a detailed understanding of the report. Sources tell Spaceflight Now that Holdren has received those options favorably and expressed optimism that the White House can help with funding shortfalls toward modification of the Bush plan.

"At our best, this nation has never feared the future. We've shaped the future. Even when we've endured terrible storms, we haven't given up or turned back -- we've remain fixed on that brighter horizon. That's how we've led in the pursuit of scientific discovery; and in turn that's how science has helped us lead the world," Obama said at the ceremony.

"There's no better illustration than what took place at the close of World War II, when the United States transported dozens of captured V-2 rockets from Germany to New Mexico. These were among the most sophisticated weapons in the world, a reminder that much of World War II was fought far from the battlefield -- by Alan Turing in Bletchley Park, and Oppenheimer in Los Alamos, and by countless others who developed radar and aircraft and antibiotics," said Obama.

"The military wanted to understand this new missile technology that the V-2 represented; but scientists were also invited to use these tests to take measurements of the atmosphere. And then one engineer had an idea: to rig a camera and attach it to one of the rockets. And so in this brief moment between the end of a world war and the start of a cold war, a group of scientists erupted with joy as they discovered that they had captured the very first photos of our world as seen from space. Their work would continue as the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel. And after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the work of this panel would be assumed by a new agency, called NASA. The research into these weapons of war would lead to the missions of Mercury and Gemini and Apollo."

"Carl Sagan, who helped broaden the reach of science to millions of people, once described his enthusiasm for discovery in very simple terms. He said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known," the President said in conclusion.

Obama and Holdren also had the opportunity Wednesday night to discuss the new options informally with former astronaut and Augustine committee member Sally Ride. The first American woman to fly in space was on hand at the White House last night for a star party with multiple telescopes placed on the south lawn for use by invited students.