NASA Chief Maps Out Space Agency's Future Beyond Shuttle

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NASA chief Charles Bolden unveiled new work orders for space centers across the country Thursday to pull them in line with the new space plan envisioned by President Barack Obama, and assured that new jobs will come from the transition.

"A very serious and real concern is the jobs, but this is what we call progress," Bolden told reporters in a teleconference. "We're expanding the number of programs that we have so that we can try to put people to work who are interested in being a part of the space program."

NASA's new space plan, unveiled in February as part of President Obama's 2011 budget proposal, calls for the cancellation of the agency's Constellation program in charge of building new rockets and spaceships to replace the aging space shuttle fleet. NASA plans just four more shuttle missions -- one of which is under way now – before the fleet is retired in the fall.

Instead of building its own new spacecraft, NASA plans to support the development of commercial spacecraft to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, which got a life extension through at least 2020 (five more years than planned) under the new plan.

Future of American spaceflight

No specific destination for U.S. human spaceflight, or a timetable for how one could be achieved, has been revealed by NASA or the Obama administration, which has led to widespread criticism from lawmakers and the public.

But by reorganizing all 10 of NASA's field centers across the country, the space agency will be better equipped to meet the president's space "vision" and will create additional jobs with the new programs to offset at least some of the thousands expected to be lost as the shuttle fleet retires and Constellation is cancelled, Bolden said.

"The thing that makes it different from any other vision is the fact that it's funded," Bolden said.

In his budget proposal, President Obama proposed a moderate increase for NASA overall, but set aside $6 billion over five years to spur the commercial spacecraft industry. The plan calls for a renewed push into fundamental technology development and science research.

NASA officials hope that by ceding astronaut launch services to the commercial spaceflight industry it will be more free to pursue more ambitious missions to explore the moon, Mars, asteroids and stable points in space called Lagrange points – ideal locations for fuel depots or giant space telescopes.

Congress still has yet to approve the president's proposed space plan.

President Obama is expected to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 15 to go into more detail on his space plan.

"There are many great opportunities here for NASA and for the nation, and I think there are many proud moments ahead of us," Bolden said.

New jobs for NASA centers

The new assignments include, for example, orders for NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida – historic home of the space shuttles – to oversee the agency's commercial crew-carrying spacecraft program. The spaceport would also get a $2.3 billion makeover over the next six years to turn it into a 21st century launch complex.

The Johnson Space Center in Houston – home of America's astronaut corps – will oversee the agency's commercial cargo program to resupply the space station. The center will also lead NASA's flagship technology program to develop fundamental new technologies, such as inflatable habitation modules and in-orbit spacecraft refueling, needed for ambitious trips to the moon or Mars.

The Mississippi-based Stennis Space Center, which tests shuttle main engines, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will spearhead work to develop heavy-lift rocket propulsion as part of a $3.1 billion program

The new space center assignments also follow on the heels of NASA's major overhaul of its center-driven system instituted by Bolden earlier this year.

In that reorganization, Bolden ordered the heads of all 10 of the agency's regional field centers, as well as its four headquarters-based mission directorate chiefs to report directly to his Administrator office, rather than the office of Associate Administrator Chris Scolese, NASA's third-top official. The centers and directorates had been reporting to Scolese under a structure put in place by NASA's former chief Michael Griffin.

Meanwhile, NASA's space shuttle Discovery is docked at the International Space Station to deliver more than 8 tons of supplies, science equipment and spare parts. The 13 astronauts aboard the linked shuttle and station are preparing for a Friday spacewalk, the first of three planned spacewalks for their mission.

Discovery launched into space on Monday and is flying a 13-day mission to stock the space station with vital supplies and spare parts.

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