When NASA retires the shuttle program in 2010, it will be the end of an important space era, but the beginning of what many in the agency hope is an exciting new period in manned space exploration. Administrator Michael Griffin says the end of one program is just the beginning of another.
"The shuttle is a step along the way. It's one of the first vehicles that humans have created to learn how to sail the new sea of space. It's not the last vehicle. It's not even one of the last. It's not even in the middle. It's one of our first halting steps as we learn to leave the earth and go new places. It's been an incredible learning experience for us and we will take those lessons and apply them to a new generation of machines that will allow us to sail further for longer."
As soon as 2012, NASA hopes to test fly a new manned spacecraft, known as a Crew Exploration Vehicle, that could eventually fly to the Moon and then on to Mars. The effort will cost billions of dollars and will face budget challenges as NASA looks for the money to build the vehicle. This is Congressman Tom DeLay.
"We're working very hard to see what we can do to make sure that we spend those dollars well and those dollars provide us what we all want to see, and that is to see humans flying, humans finishing the space station, going to the Moon and on to Mars."
Congress last year approved a NASA re-authorization bill, the first one in a number of years and in essence confirmation that the space program will continue. Retired astronaut John Young, who commanded the first shuttle flight in 1981, says there's no question the next generation of spacecraft is crucial to the future of manned space exploration.
"Back to the Moon and on to Mars with a Crew Exploration Vehicle is going to be awesome. But the technologies that we have to develop to live and work on the Moon and Mars will totally revolutionize the technologies that we have on planet earth, totally advance them."
NASA is expected to choose which contractor will build the CEV later this year. The new craft will look similar to the Apollo vehicles and will eventually carry a maximum of six astronauts at a time into space.