Published online 16 May 2011 | Nature 473, 262-263 (2011) | doi:10.1038/473262a

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Shuttle's end spells change at NASA

As the shuttle flies its penultimate mission, the US space agency seeks to fill a looming gap in crew transport.

The space shuttle Endeavour launched for the last time on 16 May. Only one shuttle flight remains.The space shuttle Endeavour launched for the last time on 16 May. Only one shuttle flight remains.AP PHOTO/J. RAOUX

Near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the space shuttles thunder into orbit, roadside signs reveal the deep ties that the local community feels to the US space programme. The ties are both spiritual and economic: church signs wish the shuttle Godspeed before each launch, and liquor stores tout their selection as 'out of this world'.

That relationship is now heading for an extended and painful hiatus. On 16 May, after several weeks of delays, the space shuttle Endeavour embarked on the penultimate shuttle flight, carrying a large cosmic-ray detector (see Nature 473, 13–14; 2011) to the International Space Station (ISS). The final, 135th launch of the 30-year shuttle programme will take place by late summer, when Atlantis is set to take flight to ferry another load of astronauts, equipment and supplies to the station.

"Although we're ending the space-shuttle programme, we are not ending the nation's human space-flight programme," says Philip McAlister, acting director of NASA's commercial space-flight development programme. "It's evolving into an exciting new paradigm." Before that new phase begins, however, NASA will face years with no crewed spaceship of its own, and the Space Coast, the region around the Kennedy centre, will lose some 8,000 space-related jobs.

In the short term, NASA will have to buy seats aboard Russia's Soyuz capsules, now the only way to deliver crew members to the ISS. The next such flight, slated for 7 June, will carry one astronaut each from Russia, Japan and the United States to the station. The United States also has places reserved on the ten further Soyuz flights that are scheduled before the end of 2013.

In the long term, NASA expects to give private companies the responsibility of getting astronauts into low-Earth orbit, an approach championed by US President Barack Obama. On 18 April, the agency announced that it would share US$269 million among four companies developing commercial space-flight options: SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California; Boeing, of Houston, Texas; Blue Origin of Kent, Washington; and Sierra Nevada of Louisville, Colorado. All say that they will begin flying crewed spacecraft in 2014–15.

SpaceX has already flown its unmanned Dragon capsule into orbit and recovered it successfully, the only private company to manage such a feat. NASA is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to combine the second and third Dragon flights, scheduled for later this year, to advance directly to a mission that docks with the ISS — an option strongly endorsed by Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX.

For NASA, which has always relied on its own or Russian rockets to get astronauts into space, the commercial crew-transportation business represents a fundamental shift to a different — and untested — way of doing things. Many within the agency are upbeat, despite the unknowns.

"The shuttle was one of the ways to go to space," says Chris Hadfield, an astronaut with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, who will spend six months on the ISS next year, three as commander. "It was not the only way."

Commercial suppliers will also be needed to ferry cargo — including research experiments — to the ISS. The Soyuz flights can carry very little payload, says Tara Ruttley, the station's associate programme scientist. NASA has contracted for 12 cargo flights with SpaceX and 8 with Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Virginia, to begin as early as next year. Russia's unmanned Progress resupply ships can also carry research payloads up to the station.

Freed of the need to develop transport for low-Earth orbit, the thinking goes, NASA can focus on the task handed to it by Congress in last October's NASA Authorization Act. By 2016, the agency is supposed to develop a heavy-lift rocket and a crew vehicle to send astronauts to distant targets such as the Moon or near-Earth asteroids. The rocket will draw on work done under the now-defunct Constellation programme, developed during the previous administration as a next-generation replacement for the shuttle.

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The new programme reflects the concerns of congressional lawmakers who fear the decline of NASA and of regions dependent on the jobs it has provided, such as the Space Coast (see Nature 472, 16; 2011). In an opinion piece published in the Orlando Sentinel on 26 April, US Senator Marco Rubio (Republican, Florida), chastised Obama for not allocating enough money for the heavy-lift vehicle to meet its target launch date in 2016. "The bottom-line impact of the president's space agenda is a full retreat from America's long-standing commitment to space exploration," Rubio wrote. Others echo Rubio's ire — something that could come back to haunt Obama, given Florida's probable role as a key battleground state in the 2012 presidential election.

For shuttle workers facing imminent job loss, commercial flights seem a distant dream. Engineers have been dismantling shuttle-related equipment at Kennedy's spare launch pad and preparing the already-retired Discovery shuttle for shipment to its final home at a Smithsonian Institution museum near Washington DC. For now, the era that is passing commands far more attention than the one that is promised, as a technical community that is used to making space a way of life settles in for a long stint on the ground. 

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