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An uncertain place in space

NASA's biggest task ahead is retiring the aging shuttle fleet, now planned for 2010. The new, Apollo-like Orion spacecraft will replace the shuttles. The Orion will service the space station and also be capable of interplanetary missions, but when the ship will be ready to fly is uncertain.

"Obama is a recent Constellation convert," Mangels said. "He (followed McCain's lead and) reversed his stance (first saying) that the program ought to be put on hold five years to pay for education reforms. And while McCain sounds supportive of NASA, he also has said that as president he would freeze discretionary spending, which presumably would affect the space agency."

The future for America in space is indeed troubling. Renewed rumblings with Russia after its recent invasion of Georgia will likely endanger our use of Soyuz spacecraft in an effort to bridge the long gap between the last shuttle flight and the maiden flight of the Orion.

Without additional funds, keeping the space shuttles flying would force NASA to funnel funds away from Orion thus delaying the new spacecraft's completion by years.

Meanwhile, China, Russia, Japan, and Europe plan aggressive space missions with the Moon and Mars as their targets. With a rapidly declining science-education infrastructure in the U.S., the new Space Race may leave our nation in the dust of history - permanently.

What's in the Sky: During the early evening of Oct. 4, the crescent Moon appears low in the southwest sky. Venus, our sister planet, is to the right. Both will appear hanging above the horizon. The planet Jupiter also joins the gang and is to the upper left of the Moon.

Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a NASA science writer. He is currently part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont.

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