NASA's Cloudy Future

As they always do, the astronauts from the nearby Johnson Space Center shrugged off the heat and donned their heavy gear to participate in the annual Fourth of July parade in this pleasant Houston suburb. But this year's occasion was bittersweet. The space shuttle float ferrying local children featured a hand-painted "Farewell'' banner. After a final mission in February, the shuttle program will end.

That day has been coming since 2004, when George W. Bush took the recommendation of the commission investigating the Columbia explosion and issued a directive to retire the space shuttle. The real shock came in January, when President Obama killed its successor, Project Constellation, which aimed to return Americans to the moon by 2020.

Obama's FY2011 budget, while narrowly increasing NASA's $18.7 billion outlay, proposes to redirect that money toward research and development and stronger support for commercial space flight, which would bring NASA's illustrious 50-year history of manned missions to a close. This is economically and psychologically devastating to communities in Texas, Alabama, and Florida that depend on NASA programs. Here, the mood is defiant. Many of the parade floats bore signs that read "STOP OBAMA. SAVE NASA.''

The future of NASA is a charged issue that doesn't divide along partisan lines. The Obama administration's plan to privatize manned space flight has won plaudits from conservatives like Newt Gingrich, who called it "a brave reboot,'' while angering others, like former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a longtime NASA champion whose district included the Johnson Space Center. Democrats affected by the cuts have raised an outcry -- Florida Senator Bill Nelson called it "dead wrong'' -- while others have cheered the proposal to refocus the agency on climate change issues.

Obama's new approach to space is being touted as a tough, forward-looking set of policies designed to serve the nation's long-term interests. The Constellation program, the administration points out, was over budget, behind schedule, and relied on existing technology; even the destination -- the moon -- was nothing new. Better to direct those funds to developing heavy-lift rocket systems and robotic exploration missions that might one day help people visit new worlds. The prohibitive cost of a manned mission to Mars or an asteroid, both touted by the president in an April speech, means that any such mission will be a cooperative effort with other nations.

Critics reply that killing Constellation and reorienting NASA is foolish and costly. "The innovations that have come out of the space program are phenomenal,'' DeLay said. "With our failing manufacturing base, it is extremely important for our economy to maintain them.'' Private space flight has shown promise, but it will be years before a commercial company can safely launch astronauts into space. Lacking the capacity to send US astronauts to the International Space Station, we'll soon pay Russia to ferry them there, which won't be cheap.

But the loudest complaint regards "American greatness'' -- the idea that the willing forfeiture of our leadership in space amounts to a kind of moral trespass that will cede to nations like China and India the next great strides in science and technology.

Stopping Obama and saving NASA's manned missions is unlikely. History and politics have conspired against it. Without the Cold War imperative to beat the Soviet Union, the space program's profile has waned. NASA has depended for years -- sometimes against the wishes of the president -- on a succession of powerful congressional figures, most recently Tom DeLay, whose clout helped ensure that Constellation would succeed the shuttle program. But after introducing Constellation, Bush never mentioned it again. DeLay was forced to leave Congress soon afterward, and NASA has never found his equivalent champion. Congress still must pass a budget, but Obama's vision is likely to prevail.

Where his critics have a point is in arguing that NASA lacks a clear mission. Without a directive and funding, talk of visiting Mars or an asteroid is grandiose but empty. Meanwhile, gauzy nostrums about inspiring children and international cooperation are creating political headaches. Last week, NASA administrator Charles Bolden touched off a storm when he told al Jazeera that the agency's new mission was to "find a way to reach out to the Muslim world'' -- surely not what anybody had in mind.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.