The U.S. space program is at a crossroads, with NASA's defining programs for human spaceflight being phased out (the space shuttle) or nearing completion (the International Space Station).
What comes next is an open question: The Obama administration has convened an independent panel to review NASA's plans for manned spaceflight, and until that committee delivers its findings next month, it remains unclear what targets (the moon? Mars? a nearby asteroid?) the U.S. will set or what hardware it will use to get there.
For now, the most that space buffs have to go on are the leanings of newly installed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. A longtime military aviator and four-time shuttle flier, Bolden is expected to champion a strong human role in NASA's exploration of the solar system, and a recent interview with the Associated Press lends credence to that speculation.
Bolden, 62, told the AP that he would be "incredibly disappointed if we have not at least reached Mars" in his lifetime. Bolden spoke more of Mars than the moon but "didn't rule out using the moon as a stepping-stone" to the Red Planet or even farther afield, according to the AP. Such a philosophy would likely please the many high-profile space advocates, such as Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who bemoan focusing on the moon, reached by astronauts 40 years ago, as a target for the future.
Whatever the outcome of the human spaceflight commission's review, it appears that President Obama has chosen a leader for the space agency with the exploratory zeal expected of a veteran fighter pilot. "I did grow up watching Buck Rogers," Bolden said in the AP interview, "and Buck Rogers didn't stop at Mars."
Photo of Bolden at his swearing-in last week: NASA/Bill Ingalls