HOUSTON -- As NASA prepared for its final space shuttle launch, some inside the space agency said its future direction was ambitious but ambiguous at best.

The difficulty the country has right now is this hiatus period when we will not be able as a nation to put astronauts in space, said Lee Norbraten, a former Space Shuttle Transition Manager who now works in the agency's Independent Program Assessment Office.

Last year, President Barack Obama cancelled the space agency's Constellation Program, which would have returned Americans to the moon, and ordered NASA to chart a course beyond low Earth orbit to an asteroid or Mars.

The plan came under fire by some members of Congress, and many in the space agency, as being too vague and inadequately funded.

The obligation, of course, continues to fall on the administration and Congress to reach a consensus and to set a mandate for what it is the agency will do in the future, Norbraten said.

Norbraten, who joined NASA in 1967 and has been a part of some of its greatest successes, said the transition at Johnson Space Center would be similar to the one it saw in the 1970s after the conclusion of the Apollo program.

The lead time for most major developments in human spaceflight is typically five to seven years, he said. It would be difficult given the period of uncertainty that we've had to have a viable program fully developed by 2016.

2016 is the deadline set by Congress for NASA to develop a next-generation heavy lift rocket to push Americans beyond low Earth orbit.

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