Our Place In Space After The Shuttle Program Wraps

The space shuttle program is coming to an end and the Obama administration has decided not to fund a new, manned rocket program this year. Liane Hansen talks to NPR's Joe Palca about what's happening now in space exploration, like interesting robotic missions, private enterprise and international efforts.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

America's space program is scheduled to undergo a fundamental shift in 2011. Unless something changes by the end of the year, NASA will no longer have a rocket to send astronauts into space. The space shuttle program is being retired, and for the moment there is no American replacement rocket capable of sending people into orbit.

To talk about rockets and more of what's ahead for the new year in space, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is in the house. And first of all, Joe, how did NASA get into this situation?

JOE PALCA: Well, as you say, they decided they were going to retire the shuttles and that makes sense. They're 30 years old. They were an expensive program to operate, and seemed like after 30 years it might be time to get something new.

So NASA began this large program to come up with a replacement. And then the Obama administration decided they didn't want to do that. So they basically cancelled the program.

Interestingly, the L.A. Times reports recently that they still have to pay like $500 million in this fiscal year, because Congress hasn't gotten around to cutting off the funding yet. But that's another story.

HANSEN: So NASA is abandoning manned space flight?

PALCA: Well, no, they're not. The plan is, they've got contracts with the Russian space agency to send astronauts to the space station, the international space station, on the Soyuz launch system, the capsule, to get astronauts into space. And they've been doing that already. I mean, that's already been an alternative way of getting up there for American astronauts.

And the other thing that's happening is there is going to be some private companies that are jumping into this space launch business. SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, are some of the ones that have been very public about their activities. There are some others that might be a little more, you know, sort of cagey about what they're up to. But the idea is that NASA will buy launch services from a commercial entity.

HANSEN: But there will be at least two more shuttle flights this coming year?

PALCA: Yeah. And one of them is one of those exciting supply missions where they bring up lots of equipment. And then the other one is a little more interesting in that it's bringing up a major scientific experiment that's supposed to measure charged particles and cosmic rays. And there could be a third shuttle, and this is one of these funny things.

So, since the Columbia accident, NASA's policy is to have a space shuttle waiting in case they have to send up a rescue mission if one gets into space and it's been damaged and they don't want to let it come back down to earth. So they have one that's waiting after the last shuttle mission, but then some people said, well, if it's just waiting there, why don't we launch it, because it's fully ready to be launched.

And so NASA said, well, we will if you tell us to. And right now, Congress has said, we're not sure yet. So, of course, if they launch one, then do they have another one standing by? This could go on forever. But I think they're talking about doing one. So it could be three this year, but there's two on the books.

HANSEN: It's always so interesting to talk about human space flight, but there are also some interesting unmanned missions that will be launched in 2011. Can you elaborate on some of them?

PALCA: Well, sure. One of them that's kind of cool is the Juno spacecraft. That's the solar-powered spacecraft that's heading off to Jupiter. And then there's GRAIL. It's actually twin spacecraft that are going to be used to determine the interior of our moon, which I think is kind of cool.

And then, the big one is, in Thanksgiving, the next Mars Rover is going to go off. It's the Mars science laboratory. If you think of the last rover as sort of like dune buggies, this is more like an SUV, although it's still smaller than an SUV.

HANSEN: Yeah. I remember we talked back in January 4th, 2004 about the first Rover, and that was supposed to last about, what, a week?

PALCA: Right. That was the Spirit Rover, and a few weeks later it was the twin Rover Opportunity that went up, and they were supposed to last 90 days. So, talk about your successful program. Ninety days expected launch, now we're into seven years. But I have to say that we might have to declare Spirit dead sometime this year.

They had to shut off almost all of its instruments before the winter started because they didn't think they'd have enough power - they're solar powered also. So they shut everything down and they said, when the sun comes back up, we hope to hear from you. Well, the sun's come back up and they haven't heard anything.

Now, they've got some time. It might wake up, but it might not, and that would be sad.

HANSEN: But it's not dead yet.

PALCA: Well, not officially.

HANSEN: NPR's science correspondent, Joe Palca. Joe, thanks a lot. Happy new year.

PALCA: Happy new year to you.

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