In the wake of NASA's final shuttle launch Friday morning with the space shuttle Atlantis, many critics are expressing doubt over NASA's future now that the 30 year shuttle program has come to an end.
"If God had meant for us to travel into deep space, he would have given us more money," says space expert John Pike of globalsecurity.org.
Pike, a bespectacled, bearded self-described "space cadet" who is known for the rare qualities of being able to decipher both space science and Washington politics, is deeply pessimistic about the future of NASA and the loss of America's pioneering spirit. "Americans are a pioneering people,” he said.
“For four centuries we were pioneering the horizontal frontier of the west, at the beginning of the 20th century we started to pioneer the vertical frontier and that took us from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base. I think that the piloted space flight program is about the American myth and without human space flight I think that the country would be impoverished and we'd really have to reexamine what it is to be Americans."
Others are not so glum. In his Twitter town hall meeting this week, President Obama sounded a hopeful note about NASA's future. "Rather than keep on doing the same thing, let's invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us places faster, allow human space flight to last longer."
In a dig at his critics who maintain NASA has no grand post-shuttle plans along the lines of an Apollo program, the President said, "What you're seeing now is NASA, I think, redefining its mission. And we've set a goal to let's ultimately get to Mars. A good pit stop is an asteroid."
But critics maintain NASA's wallet is much thinner than the president's promises. "Human space flight is fiendishly expensive and thus far the payoff has been political rather than tangible," Pike declared.
The administration is investing high hopes that the private sector will pick up some of the slack, left by the absence of the shuttle program. "We have to get out of the business of owning and operating low Earth orbit transportation systems and hand that off to the private sector exercising sufficient oversight of course to ensure the safety of our astronauts," says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden."We need to focus on deep space exploration, while empowering today's innovators and entrepreneurs to carry out the rest."
Companies including the Richard Branson backed Virgin Galactic and Spacex, which has already signed a contract with NASA to provide 12 cargo launches to the International Space Station, show promise in that regard.