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Space Shuttle's End Prompts Doubts About NASA's Future

NASA workers escort space shuttle Atlantis as it is towed to the Orbitor Processing Facility for decommissioning at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011
NASA workers escort space shuttle Atlantis as it is towed to the Orbitor Processing Facility for decommissioning at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011

One day after the landing of Atlantis ended the 30-year space shuttle program, the company that ran shuttle operations for the U.S. space agency NASA is dismissing 1,510 employees. The end of the shuttle program also leaves the United States with no means of putting astronauts into orbit other than paying Russia around $50 million per ride. Many Americans are concerned that the glory days of U.S. space travel may have ended.

The local news in central Florida now is about job losses and an uncertain future for the space program that focused world attention on this beach resort area for more than half a century.

One man who knows that history well is 79-year-old Murphy Wardman. He worked for General Dynamics for 37 years, developing some of the heavy lift rockets that took the first U.S. astronauts into space and, eventually, to the moon.

Now he watches as family members working with the space program lose their jobs.

"I've got one son-in-law that has just been laid off, I've got another son-in-law that is going to be laid off, I have a daughter who is going to be laid off," said Wardman.

Wardman is one of several retired space engineers who volunteer at the Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, across the Indian river from the Kennedy Space Center's iconic Vehicle Assembly building.

"A monument to what used to be; the monument to how America used to be," said Wardman.

Wardman said he thinks the U.S. space program took a wrong turn back in the early 1970s when it turned away from further development of deep space missions.

"We were already on the moon, we already had the capability. Today, we can't get anything anywhere," he said.

Wardman and other former space workers supported NASA's Constellation program that planned to establish bases on the moon to carry out a mission to Mars.

President Barack Obama canceled that program last year, however, in favor of a decades-long plan that envisions trips to an asteroid and to Mars. Wardman does not think that will ever happen.

"The Constellation program was our best hope and it got canceled," he said.

But NASA officials say the U.S. space program is not foundering and is in transition to a new phase. Private companies are developing new vehicles to carry astronauts to the space station and officials expect at least one to be ready for launch by 2015. In the meantime, however, NASA has no way of putting people in space.

That gap in U.S. space transportation capability bothers many former astronauts, including Franklin Chang-Diaz, who flew on seven shuttle missions.

"We did not have the foresight to really develop some alternative and think about the technology that needed to be developed 10 or 15 years before this happened," said Chang-Diaz.

Chang-Diaz heads the Ad Astra Rocket Company in Houston. He is developing a plasma rocket and is excited about NASA's long-term deep-space projects.

"You close a chapter in order to open a new one and we look to the new one to be even better," said Chang-Diaz.

But some NASA workers worry that the current budget fight in Congress bodes ill for ambitious and expensive space projects.

That also is the concern of Wardman, whose hopes for future generations in space have now dimmed.

"I have a bunch of grandkids and I keep them all fired up about the space program, but I don't know where they are going to go; I really do not know what we are going to do," he said.

Wardman said he will keep watch on the nearby Kennedy Space Center, hoping for signs that he is wrong.