In a hangar here at the Johnson Space Center, engineer Lori Hanson shows off a model of the agency's pride and joy: the new spaceship NASA is designing to carry astronauts back to the moon.
It will be bigger than the Apollo capsule, she says, "because the mission is very different from Apollo." For the first time, NASA will build a base on the moon, where humans could live for six months at a stretch.
Those who keep tabs on NASA's fortunes worry that the agency's plan to return Americans to the moon in a decade won't amount to more than a cluster of plywood frames in a hangar. As NASA marks its 50th anniversary Wednesday, space experts say NASA is adrift, its future disturbingly murky.
The space shuttle is due to retire in two years. Its successor, beset by budget and technical problems, won't fly until 2015 at the earliest, creating a stretch of at least five years when the United States will have no way to launch humans into orbit.
"It's a rather unfortunate time to be celebrating a 50th anniversary," says space historian Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College. "Right now, we're at best at a plateau, if not — I hate to say this — heading downwards."
The space agency was born Oct. 1, 1958, at the decree of Congress. Less than 11 years later, it landed the first man on the moon, a feat that has yet to be equaled by any other nation.
Since then, NASA has sent robots to every corner of the solar system and built a spaceship, the shuttle, more versatile than any in history. It also lost astronauts — 14 died in two shuttle accidents — and the nation's attention.
"I've seen NASA struggle with how … we get back to an Apollo kind of excitement," says former space-agency official Ray Colladay. "It's a middle-aged bureaucracy now."
President Bush tried in 2004 to reinvigorate NASA, directing the agency to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and to start planning to send humans to Mars. Bush also promised an infusion of cash to pay for it all, but the full sum failed to materialize.
Even one of the authors of Bush's moon plan says the president's space legacy is in question.
"The agency is at a crossroads," says Bretton Alexander, a former White House aide now at the X Prize Foundation, a non-profit group that funds technology contests. "The next administration has a big decision to make about which direction (NASA) will go."
Alexander and others cite a host of problems dogging the space agency as it prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday:
• What to do with the space shuttle. At Bush's direction, NASA plans to retire the shuttle in mid-2010, but there's support in Congress to keep the shuttle flying. That could cost $4 billion a year. NASA needs that money to build the new moon vehicle.
The shuttle has had two deadly accidents in 124 flights. NASA chief Michael Griffin told The Orlando Sentinel this month that if the shuttle's life is extended for five more years, there would be a one-in-eight risk of losing astronauts in that period.
• How to get astronauts to the International Space Station, an orbital lab funded largely by the U.S. After the shuttle retires, NASA hopes to use Russian craft to carry U.S. crews to the station. Purchase of the Russian ships requires congressional approval, which has yet to be granted.
• When the shuttle's replacement will fly. NASA is building a rocket, called the Ares I, and crew capsule, the Orion, to carry humans to orbit. Griffin had hoped to have the two ready in 2013, three years after the shuttle stops flying. Instead, the first manned launch has been delayed until 2015.
Lack of funding, leadership
It's a comedown for an agency that commanded more than 3% of the federal budget in the 1960s. Today it gets less than 1%.
After the United States beat the Soviets to the moon, interest and funding collapsed. The space agency was forced to shelve grand plans for human exploration of the solar system.
Since then, many of NASA's greatest triumphs have been the work of machines, not astronauts. Public interest has focused on the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars rovers. The space station, though a technical marvel, draws scant attention, as do shuttle flights.
"I'm in the business and I can't tell you who's on the space station. I have no idea," says Lennard Fisk, a University of Michigan space science professor.
He and others blame a lack of funding and leadership for the agency's lost prominence. The space program "has moved forward for more than 30 years without a guiding vision," the experts who investigated the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia said in their report to NASA.
Bush tried to provide a guiding vision, though its success depends on future administrations and Congresses. For now, both presidential candidates have expressed support for the goal of sending humans back to the moon. Both have promised to increase NASA's budget.
Neither has proposed anything close to the tens of billions of extra dollars Alexander says would be needed to prevent NASA from temporarily losing its ability to launch humans into orbit.
The forecast for NASA's funding looks "bleak," says Roger Launius, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. NASA hopes to start work in the coming decade on a giant rocket, called the Ares V, needed to shoot cargo to the moon, but Launius fears the nation won't find the money.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we don't, simply because there is no compelling rationale that I've seen for going to the moon," he says.
Still, Launius and others say that though the manned flight program is floundering, satellites and other robotic spacecraft are doing exciting science and will continue to do so.
NASA's Griffin conceded in an interview with USA TODAY that "it's a difficult time … (with) lots of churn, lots of turmoil, lots of uncertainty." All the same, he declared confidence that even if NASA's budget doesn't grow, it will build a moon base in the next 15 years and send humans to Mars in 30 years.
"We're on a real upswing in terms of can-do attitude at NASA," he said. "We're not on a plateau. We're in a good place."