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Has NASA Lost the Right Stuff?

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Those were the days: The Apollo 17 moon landing in Dec. 1972, the last time anyone's walked on the moon. (NASA)

The signs of a midlife crisis are there: A 50th birthday approaching; a longing for the glory days of youth; a hankering to dump the aging partner of 27 years; and a costly flirtation with a new young thing.

This isn't some balding businessman in a sports car. It's NASA.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which opened its doors on Oct. 1 1958, is struggling with its identity and its future.

The agency's angst is Velcroed to the vehicle that NASA has been married to for more than half its life and is seeking to dump — the space shuttle.

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The shuttle has kept NASA going to the same place over and over, circling the Earth 18,449 times since 1981. For much of that time, NASA's mission has been to build the international space station, a place to do research and to learn how to live in space.

But the NASA of the future is looking to retire the shuttle in 2010 and build new space vehicles to return astronauts to the moon and, someday, to travel to Mars.

Doing that requires a clean break from the shuttle program. But a combination of pressures — political, economic, engineering and diplomatic — make it difficult, costly and some say unwise to ditch the shuttle as soon as planned.

While NASA publicly talks about shuttle retirement, it's also quietly making sure it could postpone those plans. Divorce isn't as easy as it once looked.

Making the break from the shuttle program would mean five years without an American way to get into space, forcing astronauts to hitch a ride with the Russians to the multibillion-dollar space station that U.S. taxpayers funded.

That makes many people uncomfortable. The two presidential nominees and many in Congress say they want to keep the shuttle flying past the 2010 retirement date mandated by the Bush administration.

But doing so would be costly, and given the current financial meltdown, big spending on NASA in the future doesn't seem likely.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's own frustrations leaked out in an internal e-mail in August.

"My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be," he said, referring to the shuttle program and the future. In that e-mail, he said the White House science and budget offices were on a "jihad" to retire the shuttle.

Publicly, Griffin supports the Bush administration's plan to retire the shuttle in two years. But people close to him say he is troubled with that timetable, and his e-mail reflects that. Also, NASA has undertaken a study on how to keep its three shuttles flying longer.

Still, NASA would rather focus on the future.

In some ways, the future is reminiscent of the moonshot days of the 1960s. The new rocket would have an Apollo-like capsule on top.

Astronauts would first fly in that ship in 2015 but stay in Earth's orbit, with a moon landing by 2020. Once there, astronauts would build a base camp and eventually journey to Mars.

If the shuttle is shelved after space station construction ends, that leaves five years with the Russian Soyuz as the sole ride to get there.

After the 2004 Columbia disaster, NASA did rely on the Russians for trips to the space station for 2 1/2 years while shuttles were grounded for safety improvements.

But after Russia's invasion of the republic of Georgia, top NASA officials have called the idea of depending on the Russians "unseemly."

Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell said the notion that Americans would pay the bulk of the cost for the space station and then either abandon it to the Russians or depend on them for transportation doesn't make sense.

"If we're going to build it, then we better use it," Lovell said. "If the shuttles are in good condition, keep them flying."

John McCain and Barack Obama, who have similar space policies, both want to shorten the gap in spaceflight that follows the end of the shuttle program. They support the general idea of going back to the moon, but whoever wins the election will probably re-examine current plans, experts said.

Meanwhile, NASA leaders must contend with a dissident team of employees and contractors who have so little faith in the chosen design for the new moon rocket that they are working on their own time on a cheaper alternative.

Because of all these issues, the space agency's own quasi-independent safety panel warned this summer of an unusual sense of anxiety among workers.

Perhaps adding to frustrations, NASA announced Monday that its high-profile mission in October to repair the Hubble Space Telescope was delayed until next year because of an unexpected glitch in the orbiting telescope.

On top of all that, China is becoming a new space competitor. Chinese astronauts took a spacewalk on Saturday, and the head of the Chinese space agency said he plans to send astronauts to the moon "in the near future." A new moon race could be on.

"There's a lot of problems NASA has at middle age. It's being asked to do too much," said Syracuse University public policy professor Henry Lambright. "It's unrealistic to expect you to carry on this burden of the past, the shuttle and the space station, while you do something new without more money. You can't do it."

Suggesting NASA is having a mere midlife crisis is sugarcoating the situation, said Hans Mark, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Texas who was a NASA administrator during the Reagan administration.

"It's not a midlife crisis. It's a disaster," Mark said. "We can't possibly give up on the shuttle and let Russians be the only ones get to the space station. We don't have a higher-tech replacement for the shuttle, and we screwed up the space station" by putting it in an orbit that prevents it from being useful for missions to the moon or Mars.

Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy associate administrator, tried to put the situation in the best light.

"We are at a crossroads," Hale said, noting the future could be viewed as dangerous or an opportunity.

"If we had done things the way we wish we could have, we wouldn't be here," Hale said. "But here we are... It's a shame we got in this situation."

John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the National Air and Space Museum, said: "NASA at 50 is still suffering from a decision made when it was 12."

During the race to the moon, NASA got special treatment, essentially getting a blank check during the Kennedy space race era.

In 1970, President Nixon ruled it would be treated like all other federal agencies, and "NASA has been in the midst of a perpetual crisis ever since," Logsdon said.

These days a new attitude is called for from an agency that began as risk-taking one that raced the Russians.

As Hale put it, NASA must become "more mature."