During a surprise online chat Aug. 29, U.S. President Barack Obama said keeping the U.S. space program strong is a big priority for his administration.

Obama hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session with the public on the popular social news site Reddit. The first question he received during the hourlong session, which began at 4:30 p.m EDT, concerned NASA’s budget.

“Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered,” Obama replied, referring to the 1-ton NASA rover that touched down on the red planet Aug. 5. “The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level — so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to [an] asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight,” he added.

These last words refer to NASA priorities the Obama administration outlined in 2010. That year, the president canceled NASA’s Moon-oriented Constellation program and directed the space agency to work toward getting astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, then on to the Mars vicinity by the mid-2030s.

While Obama lauded Curiosity’s mission, which is going well so far, the future of NASA’s Mars exploration program is very much up in the air.

NASA’s budget remains flat in the White House’s 2013 federal budget request, which was released in February. But the space agency’s robotic exploration program suffers a 20 percent cut, with much of the money coming out of the Mars program.

As a result, NASA dropped out of the European-led ExoMars mission, which aims to launch an orbiter and a rover to the red planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively. And the agency is downscaling and fundamentally reshaping its Mars exploration strategy.

The same day Obama spoke online, the Republican Party released its official platform for the 2012 U.S. presidential election, which included a brief passage about the government’s space program. The statement, in its entirety, reads:

“The exploration of space has been a key part of U.S. global leadership and has supported innovation and ownership of technology. Over the last half-century, in partnership with our aerospace industry, the work of NASA has helped define and strengthen our nation’s technological prowess. From building the world’s most powerful rockets to landing men on the Moon, sending robotic spacecraft throughout our solar system and beyond, building the International Space Station, and launching space-based telescopes that allow scientists to better understand our universe, NASA science and engineering have produced spectacular results. The technologies that emerged from those programs propelled our aerospace industrial base and directly benefit our national security, safety, economy, and quality of life.

“Through its achievements, NASA has inspired generations of Americans to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, leading to careers that drive our country’s technological and economic engines.

“Today, America’s leadership in space is challenged by countries eager to emulate — and surpass — NASA’s accomplishments. To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, maintaining a source of high-value American jobs.”