When the orbiter Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, the 30-year-old space shuttle program ended. Now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is setting its sights on the next big exploration mission: sending astronauts to an asteroid in about 15 years.
But the path to that goal remains poorly defined, jeopardized by a bleak budget outlook and a weak political consensus. It has left a deep angst that U.S. leadership in spaceflight is in rapid decline and the very ability to fly humans off the Earth is at risk.
"I'm very disappointed about where we are today," said Robert L. Crippen, who flew on the first space shuttle mission and went on to senior leadership jobs in both NASA and the aerospace industry. "NASA's future is very fuzzy right now."
NASA has a complicated plan that would include operating the International Space Station, tapping a private launch service to ferry astronauts to orbit and building a new launch system to send humans on deep space missions, including an asteroid by the mid-2020s.
Engineers and technicians are busy at plants across the nation, building new crew capsules, testing hardware in vibration chambers and preparing to conduct demonstration flights, all part of supporting the future steps that NASA envisions.
Nonetheless, the overall plan has failed to gain widespread support, reflecting serious concerns about the costs, risks and the lack of detail about the most difficult aspects of the exploration mission.
So far, NASA has not described in detail the architecture of the launch system for deep space missions, the cost of the program or even which asteroid it would visit. At the same time, it is overseeing a massive retrenchment of the space shuttle work force, laying off thousands of workers in Florida, Texas and California. As a result, the U.S. industrial capacity to build spacecraft is shrinking, which is already driving up the costs for the remaining business.
Even NASA's staunchest supporters in Congress, within industry and among the astronaut community are growing impatient or frustrated.
"It is important we define what is next and move on it soon," said John Elbon, a Boeing vice president. "We have been meandering for the last few years."
NASA officials have worked since the launch of Atlantis on July 8 to assure the public that it still has an ambitious agenda.
"Human spaceflight is not ending with the space shuttle program," said NASA deputy chief Lori Garver. "Indeed, American leadership in spaceflight will continue at least for the next half-century."
NASA still has its share of the space station, which will provide a research platform until at least 2020 and possibly long beyond. Officials from NASA and the aerospace industry say that puts the agency in a better position than the years before the shuttle program, when spaceflight was suspended.
But that sunny view belies a reality that NASA's current condition is the product of repeated failures over the past two decades to develop a new launch capability. The United States has started and retreated from ambitious new launch systems at least three times, and now has no new hardware in development. Even top NASA leaders acknowledge that the agency faces a serious erosion in its industrial base and in-house expertise, as the experienced engineers, scientists and technicians of the shuttle era retire. It is trying to hold onto its know-how as best it can, said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator of space operations.
"It's naive to say that we have it well in hand," he said. "This is a very difficult thing to do in how to capture this knowledge and pass it on. We're trying our best."
The end of the shuttle is having a profound effect across the space industry. The cost of liquid rocket engines, for example, has jumped 300 percent, because overhead costs have to be spread out over less business, said Dan Collins, chief operating officer of United Launch Alliance, which orbits military and civilian payloads for the government.
If NASA does shrivel in coming years, the center of gravity for U.S. spaceflight will shift back to military programs. John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, estimates that the total space budget for national security and the military is $40 billion to $50 billion, more than double NASA's entire budget.
But only the most pessimistic experts believe NASA is headed toward utter failure.
At Lockheed, engineers are working under a $6.4 billion contract to build the Orion spacecraft, designed to visit an asteroid and possibly Mars by the 2030s. It will be able to carry up to six astronauts for up to 210 days.
"We don't want the nation to give up on the exploration mission," said Cleon Lacefield, the Lockheed program manager and a former NASA shuttle flight director. "The angst we have is that we know there are budget issues, and we hope NASA does not lose the exploration mission."
The first Orion flight would occur in 2016, but first NASA must figure out a launch system for the capsule. The fate of that system is in the hands of the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget, and Garver said the program is undergoing "tradeoffs."
Meanwhile, NASA is hoping to drive down its costs to get astronauts to the space station by turning the job over to private industry. The agency has provided seed money and signed development contracts with Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.
Boeing, which has built every manned spacecraft in U.S. history, has the largest funding for the effort. Elbon, Boeing's program manager, describes his capsule as nothing fancy. It would pack seven astronauts into a low-cost vehicle for an eight- or nine-hour automated trip to the space station or back to Earth.
"Imagine seven people in a minivan," Elbon said. "It is crowded, but OK. It is an enabler, not an end in itself."
Although experts fret about a privatized system, they are most concerned about the deep space effort.
"This is a critical point in time [when] NASA has to clearly define what its goal is and when it plans on accomplishing it," said Jim Maser, president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. "If we lose the knowledge we have built up over decades, it will never come back."