The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, plans to end the 30-year-old Space Shuttle program later this year. For the first time since the United States put a man in space, it will not immediately have a vehicle available to get astronauts into orbit, or to the International Space Station. Several veteran astronauts are concerned about the immediate future of the U.S. space program.
"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth," said Jim Lovell, who became one of the first astronauts to orbit the moon during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 as millions of people on Earth watched in awe. It put the U.S. space program closer to landing a man on the moon, something it accomplished a year later.
"I run into people now in their early 50s or 40s who were kids when I made my flights, and they say, ‘You know, you were the inspiration that got me into being an engineer, or scientist,' or something like that," said Lovell.
One of those inspired was Pamela Melroy, who became an astronaut and commanded the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2007.
"I believe Apollo inspired generations of students, and I think the Space Shuttle will too," said Melroy.
Lovell is concerned, though, that without a space shuttle, or a U.S.-made replacement vehicle, a new generation will not benefit from the inspiration and enthusiasm generated by a robust space program.
"I have been a critic of the way the space program is going because it’s been a major part of my life and I’d like to see it continue," he said. "I’m afraid that everything is going to bog down."
The end of the shuttle program began in 2003, when the orbiter Columbia disintegrated while returning to Earth. All seven astronauts died. Melroy was on the team that investigated the disaster.
"I think the tragedy of Columbia was such a scar for all of us, that I think that there are a lot of people who believed the shuttle was ultimately too flawed to continue to fly," she said. "I’m not sure if I necessarily agree. I do think it was time to go on and go out of low Earth orbit, but I think the mishap did at least remind everybody that it is a dangerous business."
Another motive behind ending the shuttle program was the rising cost. NASA says the price tag for a shuttle launch is about $450 million. Lovell points out that the money funds jobs and spurs development on Earth.
"Not one cent is spent in space. It’s all spent right here on Earth. And it’s spent to do things that will result in new technology for not just activities in space, but that spread throughout the entire infrastructure of this country," said Lovell.
President Barack Obama unveiled his vision for the U.S. manned space flight program last year. It involves developing technology that will someday put an American on Mars, but not back on the moon. Melroy thinks that should be reconsidered.
"It’s really hard to make a six-month trip without at least a little bit of practice, so the moon is kind of an obvious choice. An asteroid is an equally obvious choice. I think actually they have technical pros and cons, but I think that you are going to see, before we make that giant leap, super giant leap, out to Mars, we’re going to have to practice somewhere first," said Melroy.
Obama’s vision for future space flight also encourages private companies to develop the next generation of vehicles that will put humans in orbit. Right now, U.S. astronauts will have to rely on Russian-built Soyuz space capsules to get to and from the International Space Station.
"And they are charging us $60 million apiece, but I kind of think that in the long run will be fairly inexpensive compared to all the money we are going to put into all these private people to do the same thing," he said.
NASA recently awarded $75 million to Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to develop a successor to the Space Shuttle. The company says its vehicle, which was successfully tested in December, can put astronauts into orbit at a cost of $20 million each. Their Dragon capsule will be able to carry the same compliment as a shuttle - seven people - into orbit at a time.
SpaceX plans to fly its first manned mission into space in 2014, three years after the last Space Shuttle orbits the Earth.