Friday's launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis was one of the most anticipated space travel events in decades. But unlike other high profile space adventures such as landing on the Moon, sending a probe to Mars and building a space station, this one was noted for marking an end, rather than a beginning of space exploration.
Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana admits this is a hard transition for the space agency.
"Change is hard. And we're going to have more folks walking out the door here in a few weeks and they were and are performing their job absolutely flawlessly right up to the end, and that says a lot for them — it speaks to that professionalism. Change is difficult, but you can't do something else, you can't do something better unless you go through change. And all this talk about NASA's adrift, we don't have a plan — we do have a plan."
The mission now is to develop strategies for living and traveling in space for long periods of time.
NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier says the International Space Station is at the core of that mission, serving as a living lab of sorts where NASA can document human survival in space.
"We've got a nice nine-year window where we can really concentrate on this space research. And then that shows that there's potentially an economic market, there's now potentially a commercial application for space that's not government driven. So then there's a unique window here where now it's not only individual governments pushing us into space, but now there's a real commercial pull toward space and that can really springboard us and move us in big directions. So I don't see this necessarily as an end, but I see this as a transition into another era."
Still it can be difficult to let go of the past.
Some of NASA's most famous personalities have criticized the new vision. Former moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan and former Flight Director Gene Kranz are among the space heavyweights who have expressed their disappointment and concern over the future of NASA.
But Gerstenmaier says he welcomes that criticism.
"You know we've got a lot of detailed plans that we've been working in-house quietly with technical teams, really building a pretty strong strategy of how we go forward. And they captured a vision of NASA that was in the past with a different set of teams. And they haven't had the privilege of being brought in and understanding all the details that the technical experts are working on a day to day basis. So we'll reach out to them and make sure that we get the briefings to them and they can understand what we're doing. We'll listen to their opinions, see what makes sense, see if we missed something."
Gerstenmaier says it's up to him and others at NASA to convince the nation of the agency's future relevance by succeeding in deep space exploration. NASA has plans to send humans back to the Moon, as well as to Mars.