NASA has a “clear path” to the future and times will be good again one day at Kennedy Space Center — even though the 30-year space shuttle program ends in July and the agency has not yet revealed the next big thing in manned space flight.

That was the unanimous opinion of a panel that included U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, KSC Director Robert Cabana and others who gathered this morning to discuss what lies “beyond the shuttle.” They spoke in the first of a series of public forums on Florida’s future sponsored by the Orlando Sentinel and the University of Central Florida.

“There is a perception that we do not have a clear path,” Nelson said. “The fact is… there is a clear path forward.”

The path he described, laid out in the NASA authorization bill he cosponsored last fall, involves:

•Expectations that the fledgling commercial space flight program will blossom, largely at KSC, leading to cargo hauls to the International Space Station as early as late this year, and privately-launched manned space flights as early as 2014;

•The evolution of KSC as more of a multi-use space port, supporting NASA and private launches of various kinds;

•The development of a still-unannounced, still-unfunded heavy-lift rocket program to take astronauts to still-undetermined places beyond Earth’s orbit. NASA is expected to announce a decision on a rocket design next week;

•And increasing space and aeronautics research and development activity and space vehicle construction at Cape Canaveral.

Yet even if the new path gets clearer, and if funding and long-term support materializes, it will not likely result in the level of activity or employment that the Space Coast enjoyed during the space shuttle program, or during past big-ticket programs such as Apollo.

Cabana said direct employment at Kennedy, which is slipping from about 15,000 to about 8,200 by the end of this year – not including thousands more jobs disappearing from contractors’ centers outside the space center’s gates – should climb back to about 10,000 by 2015 or 2016.

Then it should stabilize, he said.

Editor’s note: The forum was organized by the Orlando Sentinel in partnership with UCF’s Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies.  

Source: Orlando Sentinel, NASA’s path to the future is ‘clear,’ panel says. Updated: June 17, 2011, 11:53 AM ET