President Barack Obama's critics don't believe he has "The Right Stuff" when it comes to charting NASA's future.
Yet the president's vision of the space program, as outlined last week, will keep it viable in the decades to come. It calls for a visit to an asteroid by 2025 and an orbit of Mars by the 2030s. A return to the moon, however, is not in the cards.
What disturbs the critics is the large and unprecedented role Mr. Obama sees for the private sector in space exploration. For a president who is often accused of being a socialist, he has more faith in the ingenuity of the private sector than his critics do.
NASA's previous plan was to develop a new generation of heavy rocket boosters similar to those that powered the Apollo moon missions. President George W. Bush also renewed NASA's goal of returning to the moon and shooting for Mars. Unfortunately, the previous administration also neglected to fund it adequately.
Mindful of economic realities, President Obama has put together a more realistic trajectory for the space agency that emphasizes unmanned exploration and research. Besides funding private-sector initiatives in space, he proposes hitching rides from the Russians to the International Space Station after the Shuttle fleet is retired. This has outraged those who believe he has ceded American space supremacy to its competitors and angered those in Congress whose districts contain NASA-related jobs.
Mr. Obama has attempted to mollify these skeptics by reviving the Constellation's Orion capsule program. Once redesigned, Orion will serve as an escape ship for the Space Station. Mr. Obama has also ordered NASA to begin work on a heavy-lift rocket by 2015. He even threw in a $40 million stimulus package to retrain workers at the Kennedy Space Center.
Still, the president's vision is a departure from the Cold War vision of space exploration that defined NASA's mission for half a century. If the agency's mission is to survive and thrive, it will need new partners in the private sector along with a revival of the "can do" spirit of the 1960s and early '70s.