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GUY RAZ, host: A child born today will never see an American space shuttle blast off from the Kennedy Space Center. The end of the shuttle program worries educators who say human spaceflight is a great recruiter for future scientists and engineers.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports now, NASA says its education mission will not end when the shuttle lands for the last time next week. Five, four, three, two, one.

LARRY ABRAMSON: There's nothing like a countdown for class participation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

ABRAMSON: These students at a summer science program in Richmond, Virginia, were excited to see the last shuttle go into space on TV. Unity Bowling, a rising seventh grader, says it is sad that she won't be able to ride a shuttle herself. But that won't dampen her interest in science.

UNITY BOWLING: I think it will still interest kids because I know it still interests me whether there's a shuttle going up or not. I'll still study the science. I'll still enjoy the science.

ABRAMSON: These kids have more important things to worry about than the end of the shuttle program; they're going to Mars.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is Navigation Spacecraft. Do you read me? Over.

ABRAMSON: These students are in a realistic-looking spacecraft. They talk to kids in a make-believe control center on Mars, getting help so they can land their ship and take part in a multi-year Mars mission. This program was developed by the nonprofit Challenger Center, which was founded in memory of the astronauts killed when the Challenger blew up in 1986. After Atlantis lands, programs like this one will live on in 48 Challenger Centers. But there's no denying NASA is losing a very visible teaching tool.

BARBARA MORGAN: We are going to die from nostalgia when the shuttle era ends.

RAZ: Barbara Morgan was the backup astronaut to Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. McAuliffe, of course, died in the Challenger explosion, and that nearly ended the goal of sending a teacher into space. Barbara Morgan had to leave her teaching job and fly as a mission specialist, and that didn't happen until 2007. During that ride, she talked to school kids on Earth.

SHANE: This is Shane. Is it hard to eat in microgravity? Over.

MORGAN: Shane, it's not hard to eat in microgravity. It's pretty easy. In fact, it's pretty fun because you can even play with your food.

ABRAMSON: There are now three mission specialists who are trained like other astronauts, but will also do education-related work from the space station. But the next educator astronaut isn't scheduled to go up until next May on a Soyuz rocket.

Science teachers here on Earth are much more focused on programs like EarthKAM, which lets middle schoolers get access to a camera on the space station. Dave Curry teaches at Holland Middle School outside Philadelphia. He uses the camera to give his students a chance to do science from the space station.

DAVE CURRY: They plan for that picture, and they know exactly when it's going to be taken, and they wait for that time. And then once the picture's taken, there's that excitement that the students have. And then they wait for the picture to be downloaded. We tend to try to do that in class, but some kids do it at home on their own Internet connection.

ABRAMSON: Post-shuttle, NASA is hoping students will keep their eyes skyward, watching the ISS and other cool gadgets that will be launched later this year, like the unmanned Juno mission to orbit Jupiter and the GRAIL mission to map the moon.

The next giant leap for getting actual teachers into space may come from the private sector. Steve Heck is one of seven people accepted into Teachers in Space, a nonprofit effort to send teachers on one of the private launch efforts currently in development.

STEVE HECK: What it's going to do is take teachers on suborbital flights - donated - some donated, some bought. You go, you take your experiment, you do your experiment, you go back to the classroom. You don't, you know, I don't end up, let's say, working for XCOR, I end up working for, you know, the Milford School District.

ABRAMSON: Ironically, those suborbital flights will look more like the original Mercury missions, and will only take passengers to the edge of space for just a few minutes. But if the program even gets close to its goal of sending 200 teachers aloft every year, lots of students will get face time with a teacher who's experienced weightlessness. Supporters of this idea hope that the excitement will replace all the space-buzz that the shuttle used to generate among students.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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