President Obama to pitch Mars mission one final time at Thursday conference

President Obama is making one last push for Mars. With about three months left in his administration, Obama wants to make sure NASA’s program to deliver humans to the Red Planet that he helped set in motion six years ago doesn’t lose momentum when he leaves the White House.

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” he wrote in an opinion column for CNN. “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way.”

Obama is making his interplanetary pitch in advance of the Frontiers Conference, a one-day brainstorming session hosted Thursday in Pittsburgh by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh that is bringing together some of the nation’s top scientific minds. The White House is co-sponsoring the event.

The conference will allow the administration to tout new developments that will aid the journey to the Red Planet, including NASA’s selection in August of six companies to develop prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats.

And it will give advocates of the current mission an opportunity to reinforce support for the multibillion-dollar mission, which includes a deep-space rocket and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle that was originally designed for a return trip to the moon.

In a 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama first promoted the idea of sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the 2030s, saying “I expect to be around to see it.”

But Thursday’s conference could serve just as much as a platform for Obama to remind Americans of his role championing a Mars mission, said John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“In 20 years, people will look back and say it was Barack Obama that sent us to Mars,” he said. “It’s only natural that he would like to have that as part of his legacy.”

Some members of Congress — especially Republicans — would take issue, considering they have criticized the president for not spending enough on the main components of a Mars mission and disagree with NASA’s decision to use an asteroid and not the moon as the steppingstone to the Red Planet.

And lawmakers have already begun preparing for the transition to a new president.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last month passed a bipartisan bill that directs the space agency to send humans to Mars in the next quarter century, the first time a trip to the Red Planet would be mandated by law.

Lawmakers still remember how Obama, shortly after taking office, scrapped the Bush administration’s Constellation program that sought to send astronauts back to the moon.

Obama will also use the conference to point out how private aerospace companies, large and small, will play a key role in sending humans to Mars just as they have participated in conquering Low-Earth Orbit.

SpaceX, a relatively new company, has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station and has been hired to carry astronauts there now that the space shuttle program has been mothballed.

A Mars mission can’t be successful without the help of the burgeoning space industry, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. And he expects the president will keep touting the importance of the private sector’s role in such a deep-space journey.

It won’t happen without the private sector,” he said. Government funding and commercial expertise “are the two major ingredients of the secret sauce of how we’re going to get there.”

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