Less than a month after the U.S. celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first moon landing, the country's space agency faces the dour possibility that it lacks the funds needed to be able to return there by 2020, a goal established by the Bush Administration in 2004.

The conclusion of the 10-member Augustine panel—formed in June and headed by Norman Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, to evaluate the direction of NASA's human spaceflight program—is that the space agency has some tough budgetary decisions to make if it wants to meet the 2020 deadline. This includes whether it should continue to provide funding for the International Space Station (ISS) or divert more money to its moon-bound Constellation program.

Under that budgetary scenario (which includes the ISS), according to the panel's just-completed analysis, NASA's current budget would not permit the launch of a new heavy-boost moon rocket, the Ares V, until 2028—and that doesn't include money for building "key lunar-base components," The Washington Post reports. The panel has proposed an alternative "Deep Space" option that would send astronauts to near-Earth asteroids and to "gravitationally significant" points in space, known as Lagrange points, that are beyond Earth's protective magnetosphere, according to the Post.

The panel, which presents its initial report today to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and White House science adviser John Holdren, is highly skeptical of landing astronauts on Mars anytime soon due to financial and technological limitations. Instead, it proposes sending astronauts on flybys as far away as Mars. Under that plan, according to former astronaut Sally Ride, there could be missions every other year in the 2020s past asteroids and Mars, and even a landing on the Moon by 2029 or 2030, The New York Times reports.

Whatever NASA decides, it will have a deep impact on the engineers, scientists, technicians and others employed by or contracted with the agency. The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) reminded the Augustine panel of this earlier this week with a letter recommending a $22 billion* budget for NASA beginning in 2011, a workforce hiring budget of about $100 million over the next five years, and a reining in of work outsourced to contractors.

Image of a 1963 model depicting an early Apollo lunar lander concept © NASA

* Correction (08/18/09): Thanks to the watchful eye of a reader this figure was amended from the $22 million originally reported.