CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) Near the launch pads where U.S. space voyages begin, President Barack Obama tried to reassure workers that America's space adventures sail on despite the coming end of space shuttle flights.
"We will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system, including a probe of the Sun's atmosphere; new scouting missions to Mars and other destinations; and an advanced telescope to follow Hubble, allowing us to peer deeper into the universe than ever before," he said at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "We will increase Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of our climate and our world -- science that will garner tangible benefits, helping us to protect our environment for future generations."
This is the place where astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan became American heroes. And they're all opposed to his ideas, warning they will end America's supremacy in space.
Obama spoke in the building the Apollo astronauts lived in before they launched.
"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit," he said. "And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we'll start -- 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. And I expect to be around to see it."
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, the moon, Martian moons or other points in space. Those stops would be stepping stones on an eventual mission to Mars.
"The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead," Obama countered. "By buying the services of space transportation -- rather than the vehicles themselves -- we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met
This all happens as the orbiting space shuttle Discovery winds down a day of resupplying the space station.
After Discovery lands, there are just three more shuttle flights, a retirement ordered by then-President George W. Bush in 2004 to pay for the return-to-the-moon mission, dubbed "Apollo on steroids." This year, Obama canceled the moon mission, called Constellation, saying it was not sustainable and was long underfunded.
But to Armstrong, Lovell and Cernan this was killing more than a moon program, but the entire American manned space program.
"Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity," the three Apollo veterans wrote in a letter to the media. "America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space."
To counter, the administration brought out Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate Buzz Aldrin, who in a statement said, "The steps we will be taking in following the president's direction will best position NASA and other space agencies to ultimately send humans to Mars and other exciting destinations as quickly as possible."
Earlier this week, the administration said it would rescue a small part of the moon program: its Orion crew capsule. But instead of taking four astronauts to the moon, the not-yet-built Orion will be slimmed down and used as an emergency escape pod on the space station.
When Obama speaks Thursday afternoon, he will be in the vast launch complex's Operations and Checkout building. It is the place where Orion is scheduled to be eventually prepared for launch.
Technically, this is more than a speech. It is a space conference, organized by the White House, with four sessions after the president talks to go into more depth about the details and challenges ahead.
Obama becomes the first sitting president in 12 years to visit Kennedy Space Center, but he won't stay long. After a couple hours he'll jet to Miami and spend more time in South Florida at two Democratic National Committee fundraisers.