President Barack Obama yesterday insisted that US astronauts will reach Mars by the mid-2030s, during a speech in which he stressed "nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am".
Speaking to a "polite" crowd of around 200 staff and guests at the Kennedy Space Center, Obama dismissed the idea of a return to the Moon, and said: "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."
He continued: "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 president's ambitious vision, backed by his pledged $6bn NASA budget hike over the next five years, does not include Constellation's Ares I and V. He proposed: "What we're looking for is not just to continue on the same path; we want to leap into the future. We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for NASA."
As predicted, though, Obama did reprieve the Orion crew capsule, a simplified version of which will serve as an International Space Station "lifeboat". He hoped that Orion would serve as the "technological foundation" for future vehicle designed to venture beyond low Earth orbit.
Obama wants the ISS's life extended to at least 2020, and to push forward with private ventures - such as SpaceX's Falcon 9* - to take over lifting duties to the orbiting outpost, once the space shuttle programme wraps in September.
While the shuttles' retirement could affect up to 8,000 jobs at Kennedy, Obama made no mention of reprieving the fleet, which costs $200m per month to operate. He stressed, however, that NASA was in the fortunate position of having its budget increased at a time when other government agencies face severe belt-tightening.
He said: "For pennies on the dollar, the space programme has fuelled jobs and entire industries. For pennies on the dollar, the space programme has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy and inspired generations of Americans. And I have no doubt that NASA can continue to fill this role."
Quite how NASA will continue to inspire generations of Americans remains to be seen. The US now needs an alternative heavy-lifting capability which can reach Mars, a spacecraft which can land on an asteroid and a vessel able to safely carry astronauts to the Red Planet and back.
Space enthusiasts will doubtless be interested to hear expert opinion on the matter. Obama's Kennedy audience included Moon vet Buzz Aldrin, who last year slammed Constellation, called for the Orion capsule to be adapted for Delta IV or Atlas V launch, said private space companies should handle low Earth orbit duties, and outlined an audacious mission to Martian moon Phobos.
Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and James Lovell, on the other hand, earlier this week condemned the "devastating" cancellation of Constellation, saying that the US faced "a long downhill slide to mediocrity". ®
* Unsurprisingly, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has enthusiastically backed Obama's vision, which he called an "ambitious and exciting new plan that will alter our destiny as a species". There's more from Mr Musk here.