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What are NASA’s Post-Shuttle Plans?

The retirement of the space shuttles leaves the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program unclear.

Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off today on its final voyage, bringing NASA’s 30-year-old space shuttle program to an end. With the retirement of the shuttles, and no U.S. rocket capable of taking astronauts into space, experts are buzzing with one question: what’s next for NASA? Here are a few important issues surrounding the agency and its plans going forward.

Atlantis blasts off on the final shuttle mission. Credit: NASA.

Relying on the Russians to send U.S. astronauts to space is the first piece of NASA’s future plan. For many at the agency, this is a bitter pill to swallow. According to SpaceflightNow.com,

In the near term, “we’re going to have a reverse brain drain,” [Michael Griffin, former NASA administrator and architect of the Bush administrations moon program], told CBS News. “It used to be that people came from other places and other industries to work in the space program because of what it meant and what it was. And as it goes away, we’re going to lose those people because talented folks go where there are tough problems. And that’s not going to be good for the country.”

Griffin’s concerns are echoed by many critics of the Obama administrations’ plan to retire the shuttles. The administration has also canceled the Constellation program (the moon program devised by the Bush administration), tasked the commercial space industry with developing new low Earth orbit transportation systems, and asked NASA to build a heavy-lift rocket for trips to an asteroid, the moon, and eventually Mars.

Former astronauts, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Jim Lovell, believe NASA should keep flying the shuttles—an agency without a backup system for getting into space and bringing astronauts home is a violation of one of NASA’s critical design criteria, these astronauts told the Associated Press. Armstrong and Lovell wrote a letter to the Obama administration saying an end to the shuttle program was a mistake,

Glenn said he doesn’t disagree with Obama’s plans, although he said he believes private spaceflight will take years longer than [NASA administrator Charles] Bolden predicts. What Glenn objects to is the gap between the shuttle and a future spacecraft. While the Soyuz is reliable, Glenn said NASA should always want an alternative in case of a “hiccup” in the Soyuz plans.

[…]

“Throughout the history of the manned spaceflight program we’ve always had another program to transition into […] we had that and it got canceled and we don’t have anything,” launch manager Leinbach told his fellow workers at Kennedy Space Center. “Frankly as a senior NASA manager I would like to apologize that we don’t have that.”

The future is not all bleak, though, according to NASA administrator Bolden. During a press conference at Kennedy Space Center held on July 7, according to Space.com,

Private spaceflight firms will pick up NASA’s slack before too long, ferrying humans to low-Earth orbit and back relatively cheaply and efficiently, [said Bolden].

And handing off that taxi service to commercial companies, Bolden added, will free the space agency up to do what it was meant to do: explore further afield in our solar system. So the nation is not abandoning human spaceflight, despite a pervasive public perception to the contrary, he said.

NASA is pouring money into the commercial industry while still hammering out a design for a heavy-lift rocket. David Mindell, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, told me in an interview last week that there is a lot of anxiety about the ending of the shuttle program and part of the problem is that NASA’s leadership is not doing a good job at articulating clearly to congress and the public what they are trying to do.

Mindell believes that it is time for the shuttles to retire because “we can’t afford two space programs.” He adds that the shuttle became an unambitious program, while a lot of other exciting things are happening in commercial spaceflight. “SpaceX is doing things NASA tried to do at one-third the cost; private space will deliver something,” he said.

A detailed plan for NASA’s future will become clearer when Congress releases the agency’s 2012 budget. According to Mindell, there is still one fundamental question that NASA needs to clearly answer, “why send people at all?”

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