President Barack Obama has spent months working on front-burner, front-page issues such as health care, Afghanistan, the economy.
Next up: whether to send Americans to Mars.
And maybe to the moon, the moons of Mars and an asteroid.
That may sound like a geeky, almost frivolous multibillion-dollar idea in a time of ballooning deficits and a sagging economy. But the space industry in Florida and nationwide is anxiously waiting for Obama to make his signature statement on NASA's future. At stake is the direction of American's space program, and thousands of Florida jobs.
"It's damn important for both space and Florida," said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute, which works to bring research and commercial projects to the Kennedy Space Center. "There is no scenario where Florida's not due for a very painful transition."
"Its humongous, not just for Florida, but for the nation," said Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, who represents the Space Coast.
Obama met last month with NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, which led some to speculate he is preparing to make key decisions about the space program. But his timing is uncertain.
If this sounds familiar, it's probably because President George W. Bush made his signature statement on space exploration in 2004. Bush said NASA should retire space shuttles in 2010 and should aim higher than orbiting Earth. He proposed sending astronauts back to the moon, where they would construct a base. He also called for an audacious, dangerous mission: sending astronauts to Mars.
Now, only five space shuttle flights remain, and NASA has begun designing and testing new rockets that would send explorers deeper into space.
But much has changed, which makes it likely that Obama may alter the program he inherited.
NASA had originally hoped a new rocket and retro-looking capsule, the successors to the space shuttle, would be ready to travel to the International Space Station in 2012.
But in October, a White House panel said the official plans have slipped to 2015, and predicted the actual date could be two years beyond that — when the space station might not even be operating anymore.
The panel, set up by the Obama administration, said the Bush program could not be accomplished within its existing budget and time lines.
All of which means Obama needs to choose what to keep, what to cut and whether to increase the space agency's budget.
"It leaves the president with some really tough decisions," said Ketcham, of the Spaceport institute at Kennedy Space Center. The plan to retire the shuttles could end up costing more than 8,000 high-quality jobs in Florida's Space Coast, and none of the options open to Obama is likely to change that by much.
"Regardless of what decisions are made, (Kennedy Space Center) is in for a world of hurt," Ketcham said.
The White House advisory panel suggested some alternatives to Obama, including the following:
• Continue the program essentially as is, but increase NASA's $18 billion budget by $3 billion annually to make it actually work.
• Instead of heading first to the moon and then on to Mars, send astronauts on a different set of space journeys — to an asteroid or burned-out comet, to areas known as "Lagrange points," and then to Mars for a series of orbits, if not for a landing.
"He's got the option of abandoning the moon for something more daring," said Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert and professor at American University. "He's got the option of increasing or not increasing NASA's budget. And he's got the option of restricting the human space flight program to low-Earth orbit for the next 10-12 years."
"This is why he's in the pay grade he's in," McCurdy said. "If it was an easy decision to make, he wouldn't be taking so long to make it."
There are plenty of complications. For example, NASA might be unable to launch its own astronauts into space for seven years by some estimates. Many in Congress are urging Obama to close that gap, possibly by letting space shuttles fly a couple of years longer.
Although the panel suggested dropping the plan to send astronauts to the moon, NASA just discovered water there — an intriguing find that could make it easier to use the moon as a kind of base camp for longer journeys.
And the hand-wringing over NASA comes just as commercial space flight is developing. Most experts think space tourism in privately built spacecraft will soon become reality.
The lobbying already has begun for Obama to save the Florida jobs that would die along with the space shuttle program.
But Ketcham said the best result for Florida will be for Obama to somehow capture the public's imagination and get the nation behind a clear goal for U.S. space efforts. Because exploration is a time-honored American tradition, the drive to send astronaut-explorers to Mars might be that goal, he said.
"Are we going to put in place a program that is going to excite the high school kids in Des Moines and the college professors in Butte and the small-business professionals in California and North Carolina?"
Rep. Posey suggested: "Follow the steps of President Kennedy and put us on a path, a time line of getting to Mars on a deadline."