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Launch Finale: After shuttle program closes, is U.S. lost in space?

Discovery

Discovery Photo Credit: Getty Images

As NASA’s shuttle program prepares for its final launch after 30 years, observers are looking at the next frontier for Americans in space — and the view is fuzzy.

“Right now, we’re in a transition phase,” said Charles Camarda, a former astronaut from Queens who serves as a senior adviser for innovation at NASA. “The budget is flat, and I don’t anticipate it’s going to grow.”

NASA’s space shuttle program draws to a poignant close in just days with the final launch of Atlantis, the last-ever shuttle mission. The flight is scheduled to begin Friday, but weather could delay the launch.

“The shuttle is a really magnificent and beautiful spacecraft, an awesome piece of technology,” said Nancy Atkinson, senior editor of Universe Today. “It never really lived up to the way it was advertised: a cheap and quick way to get to space.”

The program’s dangerous record was another concern. The Challenger and Columbia disasters in 1986 and 2003, respectively, killed 14 astronauts.

The shuttles, however, made possible several groundbreaking achievements such as the deployment and maintenance of several key satellites and aiding construction of the $100 billion International Space Station.

With those milestones behind it, the shuttle has done all that it’s capable of, experts said.

NASA has yet to prioritize its many tasks ahead. The agency must develop vehicles capable of carrying astronauts into deep space with the goal of landing on Mars by 2030 or on an asteroid by 2025. It must also concentrate efforts on innovation in aeronautics.

To offset flat funding — NASA’s budget this year is about $18.5 billion, or 0.5 percent of the overall federal budget — the Obama administration is encouraging the privatization of “space taxis.”

Commercial space transport companies such as SpaceX, run by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, are testing vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station and other points in low Earth orbit — formerly a shuttle responsibility.

It’ll be an estimated three or four years before such groups can get their spacecraft safety-certified, and until then, “we’ll be paying up the nose to hitch a ride with the Russians,” said Pat Duggins, author of “Trailblazing Mars.”

Though NASA faces a human spaceflight gap similar to the one it experienced in the 1970s between the cancellation of the Apollo program and the introduction of the shuttle program in 1981, don’t consider the U.S. out of orbit for good, even if it means more international cooperation to get us there, experts said.

“The general perception is that that’s it for American human spaceflight. In reality, America’s not getting out of the game at all,” said Tariq Malik, managing editor of Space.com. “There’s going to be American spaceships in the next decade. Will they look like space shuttles? No.”

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