As NASA marks its 50th anniversary, one cannot help but note the fact that the agency’s crowning achievement – the Apollo Moon landings – took place over a three-year period that ended more than 35 years ago. Apollo was of course the toughest act to follow of them all, and NASA has done truly remarkable things since then, as Mike Griffin, the agency’s administrator, pointed out during a speech at a gala held Sept. 24 to mark the occasion.

And yet, the feeling that NASA isn’t where many thought it would be in the immediate aftermath of Apollo was palpable in Griffin’s speech: He lamented the fact that NASA is not celebrating the 20th anniversary of human landings on Mars, something that would have been possible, he says, if not for a loss of national focus.

Mr. Griffin also noted, with more than a hint of irony, that NASA was hoping for good news in the form of congressional permission to buy Russian hardware to carry American astronauts to an international space station built largely with
tax dollars. Meanwhile, the United States seems once again in danger of losing focus as NASA seeks to implement U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which entails sending astronauts back to the Moon and, eventually, to other destinations such as Mars.

This effort, which first and foremost entails replacing the space shuttle with vehicles capable of going beyond low Earth orbit, has been underfunded almost from the start. Now it faces a strong rear-guard action by those who would like to see the space shuttle program, and the thousands of jobs it provides in states like
, continue on indefinitely.

The hand of the shuttle-forever crowd has been strengthened in recent months: NASA’s plan to rely on
to transport astronauts to and from the space station between 2010 and 2015 – the period between the shuttle’s scheduled retirement and the fielding of the replacement system – has been called into question in the wake of
‘s invasion of neighboring
. On top of that, preserving space shuttle-related jobs could be seen as a way to garner votes in the presidential election battleground state of

NASA is not likely to receive the budget increase that would be necessary to continue flying the shuttle much beyond 2010 while keeping development of the replacement system – the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher – on track. After all, the
government’s already ballooning financial obligations are about to get some $700 billion bigger with the pending federal bailout of the beleaguered financial industry.

The agency was on the verge of getting the news Mr. Griffin was hoping for Sept. 26, with the U.S. Senate poised to pass a massive spending bill that includes an extension of the waiver to the 2005 Iran-North Korea Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), which effectively bars NASA from buying space station-related goods and services from
. But there also is some not-so-good news: the so-called continuing resolution, which cleared the House Sept. 24, will hold NASA to its 2008 spending levels for the first six months of the 2009 fiscal year. NASA had been slated for a modest increase so that it could keep pace on replacing the shuttle without further squeezing its other important activities.

If flat funding is part of the price NASA must pay for INKSNA relief, however, so be it. As unappetizing as some might find dependence on an increasingly revanchist Russia for space station crew transport, the alternative – grossly underutilizing, perhaps even abandoning, a $100 billion investment – is far worse.

In this regard, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. BarackObama of
deserves kudos for helping to get the controversial INKSNA waiver attached to the continuing resolution. On Sept. 22, Sen. Obama wrote the House and Senate majority leaders urging them to pass INKSNA relief and take other measures to ensure that NASA can continue utilizing the space station while keeping Orion and Ares on schedule. Congress, he said, should “be prepared to consider” granting NASA the funding increase it needs to extend shuttle operations without sacrificing the Orion-Ares schedule; provide the 2009 funding necessary to fly at least one more shuttle mission – to carry the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station; and bar NASA from taking any action that would make it more difficult or expensive to fly shuttles beyond 2010.

Sen. Obama, who raised eyebrows among human spaceflight stakeholders last year when he proposed deferring Orion and Aries five years in order to increase spending for education, apparently has since gotten some education of his own. He has now upped the ante on his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of
, who in August signed a letter urging President Bush to bar NASA from doing anything that would prevent the shuttle from continuing to fly past 2010. Perhaps this will prod Sen. McCain to clarify his position on buying Russian hardware and extending shuttle operations.

Although Sen. Obama made no promises about NASA funding that might be tough to keep as president, coming out in favor of INKSNA relief was not without political risk: having access to Russian vehicles weakens the case for flying the shuttle past 2010, and thus the measure is unpopular with many Florida voters.

Given the financial turmoil confronting the nation, it remains difficult to imagine that the future of NASA and human spaceflight will rise to the forefront as a campaign issue, or become a line of questioning in one of the presidential debates. But this much should be clear to both candidates by now: Whoever wins in November will have considerable say in whether NASA will have new accomplishments that rival Apollo in terms of sheer momentousness when the agency celebrates its 100th anniversary.