There are a lot of questions swirling around NASA lately: When will it ground the space shuttle for good? When will it launch Constellation, the next manned program? Where should it ultimately go, what kind of rocket should it use, and how much will it cost? How much money should unmanned programs get?
With NASA approaching three months without an administrator, and mixed signals coming from the White House, it might be easier to plot the path of orbiting space junk than to figure out where the agency is heading.
NASA badly needs a leader and a plan. The future of the U.S. space program, billions of dollars, and thousands of jobs, depend on it.
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who served nearly four years under President George W. Bush, was a strong advocate for Constellation and its original goal of reaching the moon and Mars. He championed Ares, a rocket he helped design, despite cost overruns, technical problems and competition from alternatives that supporters claim would be faster and cheaper to build. He pushed for narrowing the projected five-year gap between the 2010 retirement of the shuttle and the first launch of Constellation. But Griffin resigned Jan. 20.
President Barack Obama hasn't brought much clarity to these issues. He began his presidential campaign calling for delaying Constellation and spending the savings on education. Three months before Election Day, while campaigning in Florida, he reversed engines and declared his support for the original timetable.
The new president's first budget proposal would raise NASA's annual budget slightly to $18.7 billion next year. It would keep the shuttle on schedule to retire in 2010, and maintain funding to develop Constellation. It doesn't set a target for the next program's first launch, however. It suggests the White House supports returning to the moon, but it's unclear about going to Mars.
Obama has compounded the uncertainty by taking his time naming an administrator, and remarking that the next NASA leader needs to address "a sense of drift" at the agency and carry out "a new mission that is appropriate for the 21st century." That seems to leave the door open to major changes.
The uncertainty is agonizing for the thousands of workers at the Kennedy Space Center whose jobs will disappear when NASA grounds the shuttle, and for anyone else with a stake in the Space Coast's economy. It also leaves unsettled how long U.S. astronauts will have to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to reach the international space station.
With the federal government now borrowing trillions of dollars to prop up the economy, it's understandable that Obama would weigh carefully the value for taxpayers in every federal program.
But if big changes are coming in the space program, the price of delaying them, in money and time, could be steep. If the Obama administration intends to switch rocket designs for Constellation, for example, it should cut off work on Ares as soon as possible.
The right investments in space can yield scientific, technological and strategic benefits. That explains why other countries, including Russia and China, are moving ahead with their space programs. With so much at stake, Obama needs to make sure America's program doesn't get lost in space.