LIANE HANSEN, host:
Space Shuttle Discovery is schedule to blast off early tomorrow morning on its way to the International Space Station. After this mission, NASA will launch only three more flights before it retires its fleet of aging spacecraft.
The shuttles will become museum exhibits, and NASA will still have its elite corps of astronauts, though their future isn't so clear. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chris Ferguson is a former space shuttle commander who is now deputy chief of NASA's astronaut office. He's also the drummer for a rock band in Houston. It's made up of about a dozen astronauts, but some members are often training, flying on the shuttle or working on the space station. So usually only about five of the astronaut-musicians are available to get together and jam.
Mr. CHRIS FERGUSON (Astronaut): I would like think that perhaps we'll have some more time to practice here once the shuttle program comes to a slow comes to a slow end here at the end of this year or early next year.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA currently has about 80 active astronauts. Right now, Ferguson says, they're pretty busy, and they'll all have flown at least once before the shuttle retires.
Usually, about a half dozen astronauts leave the agency each year to go do other things like teaching or doing government jobs or working for aerospace companies. Ferguson says after NASA mothballs the shuttle...
Mr. FERGUSON: I would anticipate we'll see a few extra folks, over and above our normal attrition rate, might seek employment elsewhere.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That still leaves the agency with a lot of astronauts, plus nine new astronaut candidates that were just hired last year. But there will be fewer missions, and those will be long-duration stays at the space station. The only way to get up to the station will be in a cramped Russian Soyuz capsule.
NASA had been designing a new system of rockets and space capsules, but President Obama wants to cancel that program and instead rely on private companies to taxi astronauts to low-Earth orbit. Many in Congress are fighting that plan.
Mr. FERGUSON: You know, it's a very tenuous time for everybody here.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ferguson says his astronaut colleagues aren't just concerned about their own futures but also what will happen to all the expertise at NASA that's allowed America to put people into space.
Mr. FERGUSON: It's certainly not an easy thing to do, and we want to make sure that we preserve that capability and that knowledge, you know, for future generations and whoever ultimately does take us up to the International Space Station and hopefully beyond low-Earth orbit one day.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This isn't the first time NASA has had to make a big break with the past. When the Apollo program ended, astronauts had to wait years before the brands new space shuttles were ready to fly. But the whole situation was different back then.
Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (Space Historian, National Air and Space Museum, The Smithsonian): There's uncertainty within the system today that wasn't necessarily there in the 1970s.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Roger Launius is a historian at the National Air and Space Museum.
Mr. LAUNIUS: Even before the end of the Apollo program, NASA had an approved follow-on program the space shuttle and a firm schedule for getting it completed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: These days, no one knows what NASA will be doing next. Meanwhile, private companies are moving forward with their efforts, raising the possibility of not just commercial space taxis, but also astronauts for hire.
NASA administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden talked about that when he visited Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this year.
Mr. CHARLIE BOLDEN (Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration): When we start using commercial capabilities to get people to low-Earth orbit, does that mean that the astronaut office goes and says, I want to rent a spacecraft?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Or should NASA rent not just the space vehicle but also a private crew of astronauts to go with it?
Mr. BOLDEN: We need to have a discussion of, how important is it to have a career astronaut contingent, as opposed to none?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's why the proposed new budget for NASA says the agency should have the National Research Council do an independent review of the astronaut corps, looking at what the role and size of the corps should be after the shuttle retires. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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