Forget space shuttles, orbiting telescopes, and more robotic rovers on Mars.
The next mission for NASA could be to steer soaring space-station costs back toward earth and restore credibility to what many call a dysfunctional space program.
This weekend, the agency bade farewell to administrator Daniel Goldin, who resigned after 10 years in office - an agency record. President Bush has nominated Sean O'Keefe, deputy director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, to replace him.
In doing so, the White House is swapping the silver-visored helmet of a space cadet for the green eyeshade of a consummate bean counter.
Where Mr. Goldin was a product of the US aerospace industry, Mr. O'Keefe has served as chief financial officer for the Pentagon, Navy secretary, and business-school professor.
"O'Keefe is not known as a space enthusiast," says Keith Cowing, a former NASA scientist and editor of NASAWatch.com. "But he may be what the agency needs right now."
Under Goldin, unmanned craft found evidence of water on the moon, inaugurated a long-term program to explore Mars, and opened the door to competition from the aerospace industry and universities to plan and execute missions.
With a mandate to cut costs, Goldin implemented a "faster, better, cheaper" approach. In the spring of 1992, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., "had five spacecraft in space and three or four under development," he said last month. "Today, we have 13 in space and 27 under development."
BUT the agency's credibility has come under fire in manned spaceflight - especially the International Space Station, now completing its first year of full-time crews. The project's costs, like those of the space-shuttle program before it, have ballooned far beyond original estimates - from an initial $17.4 billion to more than $30 billion.
Early on, the Bush administration planned to scale back US involvement to a "core" station with a crew of three instead of six. Future US modules were red-penciled. And this month, a task force on the project's budget concluded that NASA's cost estimate for finishing the "core" station between 2002 and 2008 "is not credible." It presented its own scenario for scaling back the station.
If confirmed by the Senate, O'Keefe jumps with both feet into this fiscal morass. Fixing the problem may require not just accounting savvy, but also deft diplomacy.
The task-force report stirred opposition by Canada and other partners. To cut the station's scope, they argue, violates international agreements and would essentially close off international use of the station.
In assessing how the agency might fare under O'Keefe, some analysts say it could blossom, as it did in its Apollo-program heyday under another numbers guy, James Webb.
Yet the agency's objectives have been growing less visionary since then, says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. "Webb's mandate was to put a man on the moon. Richard Truly's ... was to help the agency recover from the Challenger disaster. Goldin's was to cut NASA's budget. Now O'Keefe's is to fix the space station."
O'Keefe's appointment "is a clear message from the administration: NASA has to clean up its act before we can talk about the neat stuff we'd like to see NASA do," says Patricia Dasch of the National Space Society.