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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now to the final frontier for President-elect Barack Obama. Today is the 10th birthday of the International Space Station. The idea was launched earlier by President Ronald Reagan.

(Soundbite of President Reagan's State of the Union address, 25 January, 1984)

Former President RONALD REAGAN: Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station, and to do it within a decade.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: That was 1984. On this day in 1998, a rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan with the first piece of the station, and it is still under construction. The orbiting outpost is now huge. It looks like a bunch of tin cans stuck together. This week the space shuttle Endeavour is up there delivering hardware such as a second toilet. And NASA is supposed to retire its aging shuttles, including Endeavour, in two years, even though it will be more time than that before a new spaceship is ready.

BLOCK: And that's where the next president comes in. We've been bringing you a series we're calling "Memo to the President." We're outlining challenges that await the new administration. NASA is at a critical point, and the new president will have the chance to set its course for the future. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: During the election, candidate Barack Obama ran a TV ad that recalled the glory days of NASA's Apollo program.

(Soundbite of Obama campaign ad)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: One of my earliest memories is going with my grandfather to see some of the astronauts being brought back after a splashdown, sitting on his shoulders and waving a little American flag.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But NASA's supporters were horrified by a policy paper put out by his campaign last year. It called for slashing the space agency's budget in order to fund education. Senator Bill Nelson is a Democrat from Florida who once flew on the space shuttle.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): I, of course, went to see him. And he said, well, you know I'm a fan of the space program. And I said, well, that's not what your policy is. He said, I'll get that corrected.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In August, the Obama campaign issued a new space policy. Nelson says it calls for increasing the agency's budget.

Senator NELSON: So we can shorten this gap of five years in which we will not have an American vehicle that can get humans to our own space station.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Government Accountability Office recently said that this gap is one of the 13 most urgent issues facing the new administration. If the shuttles stop flying two years from now, as planned, there's no immediate replacement. NASA is building new rockets. But as it stands now, those won't be ready until about 2015 - four years the U.S. will have to rely on Russia to send astronauts up.

Valuable employees may leave the agency. And with nothing to fly, mission control might get rusty. President-elect Obama could narrow the gap, but he'd have to decide how. To lay out options, NASA is doing 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 fly the shuttle longer. NASA chief Michael Griffin spoke at a press briefing last week.

Dr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, NASA): 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's another question facing the next president. Where should NASA's new spaceship go? About five years ago, President Bush laid out a new vision for NASA that would send astronauts back to the moon and eventually on to Mars. And President-elect Obama recently came out in favor of human moon missions by 2020. But a group of space enthusiasts wants the new president to rethink NASA's moon plans. Jim Bell is a planetary scientist at Cornell University and president of The Planetary Society. He says if Mars is the goal, the moon isn't necessarily the best stepping stone.

Dr. JIM BELL (Associate Professor, Department of Astronomy, Cornell University): The first human voyages beyond the Earth-moon system would be a potential important first step.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bell says astronauts could go to an asteroid or to a point in space where the sun and Earth's gravity are balanced.

Mr. BELL: A mission like that would be a dramatic new first for human space exploration, and it could also be very enabling for the servicing of large space telescopes or other satellites that are parked at those positions.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bell discussed his society's new road map for space exploration at a press conference. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin was sitting in the audience. I asked him what advice he had for the new president. Aldrin said, NASA needs three things: a position as the world's leader in space, real international cooperation, and he said...

Dr. BUZZ ALDRIN (Retired Astronaut, NASA): We need change. That means flexibility to be able to change, not just proceed with a course.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Change was the watchword of President-elect Obama's campaign. Starting in January, he will have to decide what change will mean for NASA. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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