The shuttle Endeavour awaits liftoff at its Nov. 14, 2008, launch from Cape Canaveral. NASA is expected to retire its shuttle fleet in 2010. Gallery: The View From 220 Miles Up
What Americans should be doing in outer space isn't normally a priority for an incoming president, especially one faced with an economic meltdown. But President-elect Barack Obama will be inaugurated at a critical time for NASA.
Construction of the $100 billion International Space Station, the project that has occupied NASA for the past decade, is nearing completion. The space agency is supposed to retire its fleet of aging space shuttles in 2010, according to the current plan. And NASA is building a new space capsule that could go to the moon, but it won't be ready to fly until around 2015.
The "gap" between the retirement of the space shuttle and NASA's new space transportation system has been identified by the Government Accountability Office as one of 13 urgent issues facing the new administration.
The fear is that during the gap, valuable employees may leave NASA. Mission Control might grow rusty. And some members of Congress are less than enthusiastic about relying on Russia's rockets to fly NASA's astronauts up to the station for a few years.
Because it's getting to be crunch time for NASA, space travel got an unusual amount of attention during the presidential campaign.
The Obama-Biden campaign ran TV ads that evoked the glory days of NASA's Apollo program, with then-candidate Obama saying that one of his earliest memories was going with his grandfather to see some astronauts being brought back after a splashdown.
But a position paper put out by the Obama campaign last year drew criticism from NASA supporters because it proposed cutting the agency's budget and delaying the replacement space vehicle in order to get funds for education.
"I, of course, went to see him, one of the days that we were voting on the floor of the Senate," says Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida who once flew on the space shuttle. "And he said, 'Well, you know I am a fan of the space program.' And I said, 'Well that's not what your policy is.' "
In August, Obama's campaign issued a new space policy. Nelson calls it the most detailed white paper on the space program that any presidential candidate has ever issued.
"It is a robust space program that specifically gets us to the moon by 2020," says Nelson.
The plan also calls for trying to shorten the gap between NASA's retirement of the shuttle and the launch of its new spaceship. To lay out options for the incoming president, NASA is conducting two studies that should be ready within weeks. One looks at what it would take to speed up development of NASA's new rocket. The other looks at what it would mean to keep flying the aging shuttles.
NASA chief Michael Griffin spoke about these reviews at a press briefing after the space shuttle Endeavour launched last week, saying "what our job is, is to have the facts available such that if the new president or the new Congress desire to change the existing policy, that NASA knows what it takes to do that."
Of course, there's another question facing the president: Where should NASA's new spaceship go? In January 2004, President Bush laid out a new vision for NASA that would return astronauts to the moon and eventually send them to Mars. NASA has been working towards that goal and drawing up plans for a permanent lunar base.
But one group of space enthusiasts wants the new president to rethink these moon plans, saying that instead of just extending the Apollo program's accomplishments, NASA should aim for something different. The Planetary Society recently held a press conference to release a new roadmap for human space exploration.
Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and president of the society, says the moon isn't necessarily the best stepping stone if Mars is the goal.
"The first human voyages beyond the Earth-moon system would be a potential important first step," Bell says, noting that NASA could send space travelers to a nearby asteroid or to a point in space where the sun and Earth's gravity are balanced.
"A mission like that would be a dramatic new first for human space exploration," Bell says, "and it could also be very enabling, for the servicing of large space telescopes or other satellites that are parked at those positions."
Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin attended the press briefing, and when asked what advice he had for the new president, he said NASA needs to be a world leader in space. He also said NASA needs meaningful cooperation with other countries' space agencies.
Also, Aldrin says, "We need change. That means flexibility to be able to change, not just proceed with a course."
Change was the watchword of President-elect Obama's campaign. Starting in January, he will have to decide what change will mean for NASA.