Defending a budget that effectively cancels a program that would have returned humans to the moon by 2020, NASA's top official said the space agency is looking beyond the lunar surface—to Mars.
In a statement, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden noted that the $3.8 trillion federal budget proposal handed down earlier this week by President Obama provides $3 billion over five years in funds "for robotic exploration precursor missions that will pave the way for human exploration of the moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids."
Bolden said robotic exploration is an essential precondition for manned missions to Earth's closest celestial neighbors.
"These missions will inform us of the most interesting places to explore with humans, and validate our approaches to get them there safely and sustainably," said Bolton.
Bolden also noted that the President's budget actually increases total funding for NASA by $6 billion over the next half-decade.
Still, some lawmakers panned the administration's proposed cancellation of the Constellation moon program . They also rebuked the president for recommending NASA nix construction of the Ares and Orion space vehicles and turn launches over to private contractors.
"The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of US human space flight," said Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala), in a statement.
Shelby also characterized private space contractors as "hobbyists" that lack a track record when it comes to successfully and safely launching space vehicles carrying humans.
Resuming trips to the moon, which astronauts have not visited since Apollo 17's trip there in 1972, was a key part of former president George W. Bush's plan for increased space exploration.
Constellation was expected to create thousands of jobs in various parts of the country, and Congressional members in states affected by the cuts vowed to fight to keep the plan intact.
"Based on initial reports about the administration's plan for NASA, they are replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla).
Instead of manned moon missions, the President instead wants NASA in the short term to focus on sending crews into near-earth orbit to continue work on the International Space Station and other, related projects.
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