President Obama's plan to scrap the Constellation space program designed to send U.S. astronauts to the moon was condemned by senators from states with heavy space industries, as the policy shift reignited questions about the mission of the U.S. space program and the role of private companies in that effort. Among them: Just how important is it that America return to the moon, or reach Mars? And can private companies be trusted to handle America's most dangerous space missions?On Monday, Obama unveiled his 2011 budget request, which includes $6 billion for NASA, but would end the ambitious Constellation project -- started under President George W. Bush -- which has already cost nearly $10 billion and wouldn't be up and running until 2015 at the earliest.

Construction Already Underway

"We are canceling the program, not delaying it," Obama's budget chief Peter Orszag said. Construction is already well underway on several new spacecraft, including the Orion crew module and the Ares I and Ares V booster rockets. Canceling the contracts with aerospace companies working on the ships would cost an additional $2.5 billion.

The project "was over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," Obama said in the request, which would provide $6 billion to help develop private spacecraft designed to ferry U.S. astronauts into space and back.

Among the firms that will receive federal funding are space technology companies led by Internet moguls Jeff Bezos of Amazon (AMZN) and Elon Musk of PayPal, as well as Boeing (BA), Blue Origin, Paragon Space Development, United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) and Orbital Science Corporation.

'Death March For The Future Of U.S. Human Space Flight'

Critics of Obama's plan -- particularly those in Congress who have delivered influential space constituencies -- unloaded on the president's decision. Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican and ranking member of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA, said the budget "begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight." Alabama is home to NASA's Marshall Space Center, which is developing two key Constellation launch vehicles, Ares I and Ares V.

"We cannot continue to coddle the dreams of rocket hobbyists and so-called 'commercial' providers who claim the future of U.S. human space flight can be achieved faster and cheaper than Constellation," Shelby said in a statement.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the powerful Utah Republican, said the Obama budget means the U.S. is "poised to send NASA back to the pre-Sputnik era by seriously damaging our nation's manned space flight capacity."

'Thousands Of Jobs At Risk'

"It is ironic that as Space Shuttle launches draw to a close, the Obama administration wants to let the curtain fall on the federal government's ability to launch astronauts into space by canceling the Constellation project and thus surrendering the U.S.'s leadership role in space exploration," Hatch said in a statement, adding that "this budget proposal puts thousands of jobs at risk for Utahns who are working on the Ares I rocket."

Utah is home to Alliant Techsystems, commonly known as ATK, which calls itself "the world's top producer of solid rocket propulsion systems," and has been building the Ares ships, among other key Constellation components. "It is not clear why at this time the nation would consider abandoning a program of such historic promise and capability -- with so much invested," ATK said in a statement.

Utah's other senator, Republican Bob Bennett, said a statement cited by The Salt Lake Tribune that ending the Constellation project, "will devastate our industrial base, put us at a global competitive disadvantage, and cost us thousands of high-paying jobs in Utah at a time when we can least afford it."

Which Comes First: Destination Or Technology?

NASA administrator Charles Bolden disputed claims that the new approach represents the death knell for U.S. manned space flight. "We are now going to have the national debate about where we should be going in space exploration," Bolden told the National Press Club on Tuesday morning. "For any of you who think we are abandoning human space flight, I just respectfully disagree."

Still, Bolden acknowledged that scrapping the five-year-old Constellation program would be a blow to many in NASA's rank and file. "To people who are working on these programs, this is like a death in the family. Everybody needs to understand that," Bolden said. "We need to give them time to grieve. We need to give them time to recover."

Particularly controversial is Obama's move to shift NASA's strategy away from identifying a goal to achieve -- such as a man on the moon or Mars -- and then building the technology necessary to get there, in favor of prioritizing the technology without a specific destination in mind.

Former NASA administrator Michael Griffith slammed that approach. "It's a stupid strategy," Griffin said, in comments cited by The Washington Post. "You have to decide what it is you want to do, and then you go after the technology required to do it. It is not a productive or efficient strategy to decide that, first, I'm going to develop technology, and then I'll figure out where to use it."

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