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EXPLORATIONS - New Plan for NASA Aims Beyond the Moon

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The International Space Station as seen by the space shuttle crew during one of the program's last missions earlier this month
The International Space Station as seen by the space shuttle crew during one of the program's last missions earlier this month

BARBARA KLEIN:  I'm Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER:  And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. This week on our program, we tell you about the new goals that President Obama is proposing for the space agency NASA. The plans include a decision earlier this year to cancel a program to return to the moon.

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN:  But before we hear about the new direction for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, we take a look back.

HARRISON SCHMITT: "Okay. I'm going to get the pro. Ninety-nine. Proceeded three, two, one ... "

HARRISON SCHMITT: "Ignition."

EURGENE CERNAN: "We're on our way, Houston!"

HARRISON SCHMITT: "Rates are good. AGS saw it ... "

Those were the voices of Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, astronauts on the flight of Apollo Seventeen. They had spent three days on the moon. Now they were on their way home. The date was December fourteenth, nineteen seventy-two.

Harrison Schmitt took this photo of Eugene Cernan. The two were the last astronauts on the moon
Harrison Schmitt took this photo of Eugene Cernan. The two were the last astronauts on the moon

In the close to forty years since, no one has set foot on the moon. Back then, there was much hope that humans would return soon and make a home on Earth's only natural satellite.

Harrison Schmitt talked about the moon landings of the Apollo program as a historic beginning to greater exploration.

HARRISON SCHMITT: "This valley of history has seen mankind complete its first evolutionary steps into the universe: leaving the planet Earth and going forward into the universe. I think no more significant contribution has Apollo made to history. It's not often that you can foretell history, but I think we can in this case."

STEVE EMBER:  But those hopes of human exploration deeper into space gave way to goals closer to home.

(SOUND: First Space Shuttle Launch)

The space shuttle has been NASA's manned launch vehicle since the first launch on April twelfth, nineteen eighty-one. The shuttle program has played an important part in expanding space science. Shuttle crews placed the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. They also performed five missions to repair and improve the observatory.

Shuttles have lifted numerous scientific instruments, observatories, satellites and probes into space. The largest object ever put into space -- the International Space Station -- could not have been built without the shuttle program.

BARBARA KLEIN: But after more than one hundred thirty flights, the space shuttles are being retired this year. That worries community leaders on the Space Coast -- the area around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They say ending the program will cost the area seven thousand jobs.

Some veterans of the Apollo program are unhappy for other reasons.

Jim Lovell flew on Apollo Thirteen. It was launched on April eleventh, nineteen seventy. But an explosion in space cost him the chance to reach the moon -- and nearly cost the crew their lives. Jim Lovell talked about the current situation at NASA during an event to mark the fortieth anniversary of Apollo Thirteen.

JIM LOVELL: "They're looking at putting money into various programs at NASA but not having any goals. Not having anything that they're striving for. Not going back to the moon or trying to go to Mars, or anything else."

STEVE EMBER: To answer such concerns, President Obama went to the Kennedy Space Center. On April fifteenth he gave a speech in which he discussed his goals for space travel.

He defended his decision to end the Constellation program that NASA began under former President George W. Bush. The immediate goal of the program was to return Americans to the moon by twenty twenty. The aim was to recreate the success of the Apollo program, mainly based on existing technologies.

But President Obama said the Constellation program was over budget and behind schedule, and it lacked in new thinking.

BARACK OBAMA: "The point is, that what we are looking for is not just to continue on the same path, we want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for NASA."

President Obama at the Kennedy Space Center after defending his new space policy this month
President Obama at the Kennedy Space Center after defending his new space policy this month

BARBARA KLEIN:  The president's plan includes adding six billion dollars to NASA's budget over five years. That money would go to using private companies to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. The idea is for NASA to buy services for space transportation, rather than spacecraft with existing designs.

The goal is to support a private space transportation industry that makes it easier and less costly to reach space. The administration says a new private space industry could create ten thousand new jobs across the country in five years.

This is a big change from earlier models where NASA led and controlled the development of space vehicles. John Logsdon is a member of NASA's advisory council. He says private industry has been waiting for this kind of message.

JOHN LOGSDON: "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."

STEVE EMBER:  Yet depending on private space companies has its risks. Right now, few companies have rockets that are able to lift people into space.

The United Launch Alliance brings together two companies. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have carried tons of satellites into space on their rockets. But the changes that would be needed to carry astronauts are costly and untried.

Internet businessman Elon Musk started a young company called Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. One of its Falcon rockets has a test launch planned for next month.

BARBARA KLEIN:  Under the new plan, NASA will keep control of some important development goals. The agency is to design its own heavy lift rocket at a cost of three billion dollars.

The new launch vehicle would be used to carry the supplies and equipment needed to explore space beyond the moon. The president set a time limit of twenty fifteen for the design to be completed, after which building would begin.

NASA is to continue developing the Orion crew capsule, which was part of the cancelled Constellation program. The plan is for Orion to provide astronauts with a spacecraft that can link with the International Space Station.

This is important because President Obama hopes to extend the life of the space station beyond twenty twenty. The new capsule could also be used if astronauts need to leave the station in an emergency.

And NASA is also being called on to develop new technologies to solve problems involved in long-term space flight for humans and robots. Next year's research and development budget calls for spending nearly two billion dollars on new space technologies. That is an increase of eighteen percent over this year.

STEVE EMBER:  Under President Obama's plan, the immediate goal for NASA is no longer to return to the moon. Instead, he called on the space agency to reach deeper into the solar system.

BARACK OBAMA: "We will start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-twenty thirties, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, and a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."

His plan also calls for spending three billion dollars on improvements to the Kennedy Space Center. The administration says more than two thousand five hundred jobs will be created on the Space Coast. That could help ease some of the concern about job losses after the shuttle retirement.

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN: Buzz Aldrin was the second person ever to walk on the moon. He stepped foot on the surface right after Neil Armstrong. He supports focusing on Mars rather than returning to the moon.

BUZZ ALDRIN: "Why should we do something when we've already done it?"

But he recognizes that some people have strong feelings about the issue.

BUZZ ALDRIN: "Obviously there are a lot of people that are unhappy about the potential of altering the future of space flight."

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER:  President Obama says he understands that some people believe a return to the moon should be attempted first, as previously planned. But, in his words, "We've been there before."

Critics of his plan, however, say it could threaten America's leadership in space exploration.

China put an astronaut into space in two thousand three, and it plans to send a robotic explorer to the moon two years from now. Next year, the Chinese plan to launch a small space laboratory to practice docking of spacecraft in orbit.

For now, NASA has plans for only three more space shuttle flights. Once the shuttle is retired this year, the only way for the United States to get astronauts into orbit will be on Russian Soyuz rockets.

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN:  Our program was written and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER:  And I'm Steve Ember. Here's a question you can debate online: How important is space exploration? Share your opinion at www.unsv.com or on Facebook at VOA Learning English. You can also find transcripts and MP3s of our programs. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

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