In just nine months U.S. voters will elect a new president who will have to decide during the first year in office whether to follow through with retiring the space shuttle in 2010 and committing the necessary funds to keep the United States on track to return to the Moon, or put the U.S. space agency on a different heading.

“It will absolutely fall to the next

president of the United States to determine whether or not we return to the Moon by 2020. Major decisions need to be made soon,” said Chris Carberry, political director of the Mars Society. “While Congress and NASA will have a significant role in these decisions, the

president will certainly set the agenda on space issues.”

All of

the four

leading candidates left in the race

have expressed support for at least the broad outlines, if not the precise timetable, of the Vision for Space Exploration put forth by President George W. Bush in January 2004.

“My view is that regardless of who wins, the [vision]

or something like it

will be embraced,” former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, a Bush appointee, told Space News. “The policy is so compelling that it will be adopted – but as importantly, the alternative of abandoning the means to explore would defy human instinct and behavior.”

The two leading Republican candidates –

Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – have endorsed the Bush vision by name in recent weeks, but stopped short of explicitly embracing the president’s

proposed timetable for retiring the shuttle, fielding its successor, and embarking on its first manned lunar excursion in well over a generation.

During a campaign stop at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida a week before that state’s Jan. 29 primary, Romney said he supported the U.S. space agency and “the president’s vision program, which consists of a manned space mission back to the Moon, as well as an ongoing mission to Mars.”

McCain, who picked up O’Keefe’s endorsement

the day before Florida primary voters bolstered the senator’s front-runner status

, sponsored the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, which codified in law the agency’s plan to retire the space shuttle and set out

for the Moon in preparation for eventual manned missions to Mars.

A brief statement on McCain’s Web site says


“is proud to have sponsored legislation authorizing funding consistent with the President’s vision for the space program” and

believes “a continued U.S. presence in space is of major importance to America’s future innovation and security.”

On the Democratic side, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped out early with her space position, telling a Washington audience in October that she would implement “a balanced strategy of robust human spaceflight, expanded robotic spaceflight, and enhanced space science activities.” After much was made in the days that followed about the fact that

Clinton did not

mention the Moon as part of that human space flight strategy, she

clarified her position. In a statement, she

said she would pursue “a successful and speedy transition from our aging Space Shuttle program – which is set to go offline in 2010 – to a next-generation space transportation system that can take us back to the Moon and beyond.”


rival for the Democratic nomination, Illinois Sen. BarackObama, proposed in November delaying NASA’s Constellation program – which encompasses building the space shuttle’s successor and returning to the Moon – by five years in order to help fund an early childhood education initiative.

Obama clarified his position in

January, saying

he was talking about delaying the Moon mission, not postponing

development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 rocket, which together will replace the shuttle.

“As president, Obama will support the development of this vital new platform to ensure that the United States’ reliance on foreign space capabilities is limited to the minimum possible time period,” the campaign said in a Jan. 10 point paper. “The [Crew Exploration Vehicle] will be the backbone of future missions, and is being designed with technology that is already proven and available.”

Perhaps no candidate embraced the Vision for Space Exploration as unconditionally as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who bet his

bid for the Republican nomination on winning Florida. He finished a distant third behind McCain and Romney.

But before dropping out of the race Jan. 30 and endorsing McCain, Giuliani aggressively courted the Florida Space Coast vote, calling the looming five-year gap between the shuttle’s retirement and Orion’s debut

“unacceptable” and telling a Miami paper a few days later that the United States

should settle for nothing less than being the first nation to land humans on Mars.

Lori Garver, a former senior NASA official who is advising Clinton on space matters, does not read too much into Giuliani’s lackluster finish in Florida

, where reports indicate he

fared no better with Cape Canaveral-area voters than

with the state at large.

“If that is the case, then either the Space Coast voters are skeptical of political rhetoric towards the end of a critical campaign – or, like most of us, they choose their candidates on a variety of issues,” she said.

Regardless of whether – or if so, how – space plays in the general election

the next president will have to deal with a NASA that has a mandate to return to the Moon.

Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and now a Stanford University

said a change of administration is a good time to stop and reassess the space agency’s progress in the four years since Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration.

“In any effort that involves decades of future planning, I believe it is appropriate to occasionally pause and ask the question ‘How are we doing?,‘” Hubbard wrote in an e-mail. “Because NASA programs are funded by taxpayer dollars, a change of administration strikes me as a particularly good time to see where we stand.”

Hubbard is organizing an invitation-only workshop at Stanford in conjunction with the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society in mid

February to do precisely that. Hubbard said workshop organizers “have no preconceived outcomes in mind.”

“The workshop will address a broad range of issues touching on many elements of space exploration,” Hubbard wrote. “The attendees will discuss the balance between space science and human exploration, needs for continuing and enhancing Earth science observations, the relative utility of humans and robots, and progress or impediments to human exploration of Mars, asteroids and the Moon.”

O’Keefe also thinks

the next administration will want to assess

NASA’s progress

on the vision. “A new administration is always a time to reassess the extant policies,” he said. “For this or any other policy to become a reality requires the next administration to embrace the objective.”

, meanwhile, said he is encouraged by space getting mentioned so early in the campaign, even if he does not agree with everything that has been said.

“While I have some concerns with a few of the policies that have been articulated, I am extremely happy that the topic is getting discussed in such a mainstream fashion,” he said. “The next president has an amazing opportunity to propel our space program forward and once again achieve some amazing things in space. I just hope he or she doesn’t squander this chance.”