Obama consigns Moon landings to history

President's vision for Nasa rules out return to lunar surface – and divides Apollo astronauts

Standing near the spot where the US launched its first space missions, Barack Obama attempted to sell his plans for the future of Nasa last night, predicting that his new programme for the space agency will protect thousands of jobs and send astronauts to Mars within his lifetime.

The President told a crowd of 200 people at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral that he remains committed to space exploration, despite his controversial decision earlier this year to cancel plans for a new mission to the Moon.

"The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we've got to do it in a smart way," he said, unveiling plans to increase Nasa's budget by $6bn (£3.75bn) over five years and bring 2,500 jobs to the electorally crucial state of Florida.

Under George W Bush, Nasa had been told that money saved from scrapping its elderly shuttle programme later this year would be invested in a bid to return man to the Moon via the Orion space capsule. That plan, called Constellation, was nicknamed "Apollo on steroids".

Yesterday, the President announced that instead of pursuing the $9bn project, Nasa will focus on prolonging the life of the International Space Station, and creating a new breed of rockets that can eventually land on Martian moons and Mars itself. "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," he said.

Private companies, many of which are developing space tourism, will be brought in to run some government flights. Meanwhile Orion will be redeveloped for use as an escape pod from the space station.

Explaining his controversial decision not to allow the US to revisit the Moon, he said: "I just have to say pretty bluntly – we've been there before. There's a lot more space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do."

Not everyone agrees, though. Ahead of last night's speech, delivered in the building where the Apollo crew lived in the run-up to the Moon landings, three former astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan, sparked furious debate by criticising the plans as the beginning of a "long downhill slide to mediocrity".

Though many employees of Nasa share Armstrong, Lovell and Cernan's anger at the scrapping of Constellation, a significant number of experts – among them Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong's former crew mate – believe that far more can be gained by putting astronauts on Mars for the first time than on returning them to the Moon.

For President Obama, the importance of winning the argument over Nasa's future is increased by the fact that Florida's is a famously close-run swing state. The agency's status as a political football has also been enhanced in recent years by its occasionally controversial role in the debate over global warming.

During the Bush era, Nasa scientists repeatedly tried, with mixed success, to interest the administration in fighting climate change, which it believes represents a significant threat to the Earth's future. The Obama plan specifically refers to these concerns, requiring the agency to increase its role in both studying climate change and supporting "green aviation".

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