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'I want an advanced heavy lift rocket, not recycled Apollo'

The President also stated that America will instead begin work in the 2020s on human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit, which could see an asteroid visit in 2025 and boots on Mars in the 2030s. This would call for a heavy lift rocket able to put big payloads into Earth orbit for assembly into "deep-space" missions. According to the President:

We will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced heavy lift rocket - a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.

The former Ares V was to be derived in large part from existing Space Shuttle and Apollo rocket tech and was to be capable of delivering nearly two hundred tonnes into Earth orbit. Grunt of this magnitude isn't yet on offer from private builders: Elon Musk's Falcon 9, for instance - which is yet to fly - aims to put only ten tonnes into orbit.

However the Falcon 9 is a new design and promises to do its work much more cheaply than the older tech of the shuttle and Apollo eras - delivered by long-established space titans like Boeing - ever could. President Obama spent a good deal of time talking to Elon Musk during his visit to Florida, and Musk has offered effusive support for Obama's vision.

According to Musk, NASA could never have afforded the running costs of the Ares rockets even after their long-delayed and expensive development was complete. In a statement released at the same time as Obama's speech, he said:

We can ill afford the expense of an “Apollo on steroids” ...

Thankfully, as a result of funds freed up by this cancellation, there is now hope for a bright future in space exploration. Handing over Earth orbit transport to American commercial companies, overseen of course by NASA and the FAA, will free up the NASA resources necessary to develop interplanetary transport technologies. This is critically important if we are to reach Mars, the next giant leap in human exploration of the Universe.

It would seem that the president is even thinking of newer tech, perhaps, for the as yet unchosen 2015 heavy lifter. By the time that decision is made, the Falcon 9 may be flying regularly and SpaceX or its fellow "new space" companies may be contenders to work on the big lifters which will hoist the deep space missions of tomorrow off Earth.

Boeing doesn't seem at all happy at the prospect. The huge corporation issued a statement at the weekend, saying:

We are greatly concerned that by backing away from the challenges of human space exploration, the United States would relinquish its leadership of a mission that has inspired generations ...

We support the president's call for increased investment in heavy-lift launch vehicle technology, but we believe the United States should be on a clear path to accelerate the development and production of this critical system, along with a deep-space capsule. Both of these vehicles are essential to any deep-space exploration mission. We have the technology and the people to commence development of these vehicles now ...

Remaining at the forefront of human spaceflight is the only choice worthy of this great nation and to the long line of explorers and visionaries who brought us to where we are today.

It certainly seems a little harsh to say that President Obama is "backing away" from space exploration just yet. He does seem to be backing away from Boeing just a bit, though. ®

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