After the space shuttle Atlantis lands on Thursday, NASA wants to blast ahead with ambitious new plans for space entrepreneurs, orbiting telescopes and a journey to Mars.
But here's the problem: NASA is preparing to unveil its design for a big, new expensive rocket at the very time that the country's leaders are staring each other down over a national debt crisis.
NASA also is pouring hundreds of millions into private companies that are creating their own amazing spaceships, but with uncertain congressional support.
And the next big space telescope — the one that could make Hubble look like a 10-year-old car on the lot — has gotten so late and over-budget that a U.S. House committee recommended killing it.
"(NASA Administrator) Charles Bolden and his colleagues are between an asteroid and an icy body," said Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, referring to the debate over designs of the big rocket. "They have this mandate to create this rocket with no place to go."
It all adds up to great uncertainty about what NASA plans to do next.
For 30 years, American astronauts flew on space shuttles. Shuttle crews helped build the International Space Station and deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. But the program also was criticized by those who said it used a huge share of NASA's budget without making equally large scientific accomplishments.
Now NASA takes a new direction, laid out by the White House and financed by Congress. For human space flight (as opposed to unmanned scientific missions), the agency essentially has a two-part plan:
• Spur development of the commercial space industry, including companies that are currently designing and building their own spacecraft. Some of these companies plan to take astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. Some plan to take paying tourists into orbit.
• Take astronauts farther into "deep space" than humans have ever gone — such as to an asteroid or Mars. NASA is designing a new rocket dubbed the "heavy lifter" for this job, and a space capsule that would ride on top.
Along with these projects, NASA plans to continue staffing the International Space Station, using it for years to come for scientific research. Until NASA succeeds in fostering the next generation of spaceships, the United States will pay Russia about $63 million per flight to take American astronauts to the station.
The transition is not going smoothly.
Nye, who became famous as television's "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and who now heads the pro-exploration Planetary Society, hammers against the heavy lift rocket idea because, he says, it has no clear mission.
He's not the only one calling it a rocket to nowhere. Suggesting this rocket is designed more by politicians than engineers, he calls it the "Senate Launch System" — a play on its official name, the "Space Launch System."
The heavy lifter is designed to be able to go different places in the solar system, but this is too mushy for people like Nye, who says a rocket should be designed for a more specific and important scientific mission — such as sending astronauts to Mars to seek evidence of life.
"Where did we come from and are we alone?" he said. NASA should focus on deep issues like this, which "can only be answered with space exploration."
On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican who represents part of the Space Coast, strongly supports the heavy lift rocket as a way to restore U.S. leadership in space exploration. But even he says NASA's statements about the plan are too vague.
"They've said they want to land on an asteroid sometime. Maybe do some Mars exploration sometime. I mean there's no clear mission," Posey said.
Former astronaut Winston Scott, a dean at the Florida Institute of Technology, supports the heavy lifter and capsule, but says he would like to hear President Barack Obama make a stronger endorsement of the plan.
"I would hope that he would be very, very definite: We will be on Mars by such and such a date," he said.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a key player on congressional space matters, said people who call the heavy lifter a rocket to nowhere "don't know what they're talking about." He said the rocket is designed to evolve, making use of technologies that haven't yet been devised but that will be needed before attempting a journey to Mars.
He acknowledged the funding situation is challenging and said the House went about "whacking the budget" by voting to cut more than $1-billion from NASA, including a deep cut to the commercial space plans. But he also said NASA has enlisted outside financial experts who can give a clear view of the heavy lifter's future costs. He said some of the House's cuts would be restored.
Now that Atlantis is about to make its last landing, former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman said he knows some people are saying "that the end of the space shuttle means the end of space flight. And I'm looking at it as exactly the opposite."
Reisman works for SpaceX, the company that designed and built its own space capsule, launched it into orbit and retrieved it from the Pacific Ocean. That's just the beginning, he said.
He likes to think about a time when "people will be able to take their vacations on Mars rather than on Hawaii. … The potential really exists for a really exciting golden age of space flight."