CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- President Barack Obama predicted Thursday his new space exploration plan would lead Americans beyond the moon and to Mars within his lifetime. "I expect to be around to see it," he declared.
Obama's bold prediction was an answer to critics, including several former astronauts, that his changes would deal a staggering blow to the nation's manned space program.
Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center, where America's moon missions originated decades ago, Obama said he was "100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future." He outlined plans for federal spending to bring more private companies into space exploration following the soon-to-end space shuttle program.
"We want to leap into the future," not continue on the same path as before, Obama said as he sought to reassure NASA workers that America's space adventures would soar on despite the termination of shuttle flights.
Obama acknowledged criticism for his drastic changes to the space agency's direction. But, he said, "The bottom line is: Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, the human exploration of space, than I am. But we've got to do it in a smart way; we can't keep doing the same old things as before."
Obama said that by 2025, the nation would have a new spacecraft "designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space."
"We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow," he said.
Obama said the space program is not a luxury but a necessity for the nation.
He noted that the Kennedy Space Center has inspired the nation and the world for half a century. He said NASA represents what it means to be American -- "reaching for new heights and reaching for what's possible" -- and is not close to its final days.
Obama sought to explain why he aborted President George W. Bush's return-to-the moon plan in favor of a complicated system of public-and-private flights that would go elsewhere in space, with details still to be worked out.
"We've been there before," Obama said of the nation's moon landings decades ago. "There's a lot more of space to explore."
He said his administration would support continued manned exploration of space "not just with dollars, but with clear aims and a larger purpose."
The Obama space plan relies on private companies to fly to the space station, giving them almost $6 billion to build their own rockets and ships. It also extends the space station's life by five years and puts billions into research to eventually develop new government rocket ships for future missions to a nearby asteroid, to the moon, to Martian moons or other points in space. Those stops would be stepping stones on an eventual mission to Mars itself.