Obama Says Space Exploration a 'Big Priority' During Reddit Chat

During a surprise online chat Wednesday (Aug. 29), President Barack Obama said keeping America's space program strong is a big priority for his administration.

Obama hosted an "Ask Me Anything" session with the public on the popular social news site Reddit Wednesday. The very first question he receieved during the hourlong session, which began at 4:30 p.m EDT (2030 GMT), concerned NASA's future and budget.

"Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered," Obama replied, referring to the 1-ton NASA rover that touched down on the Red Planet Aug. 5.

"The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level — so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight," he added.

These last words refer to NASA priorities the Obama Adminstration outlined in 2010. That year, the president cancelled NASA's moon-oriented Constellation program and directed the space agency to work toward getting astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, then on to the Mars vicinity by the mid-2030s.

While Obama lauded Curiosity's mission, which is going very well so far, the future of NASA's Mars exploration program is very much up in the air.

NASA's budget remains flat in the White House's 2013 federal budget request, which was released in February. But the space agency's robotic exploration program suffers a 20 percent cut, with much of the money coming out of the Mars program.

As a result, NASA dropped out of the European-led ExoMars mission, which aims to launch an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively. And the agency is downscaling and fundamentally reshaping its Mars exploration strategy.