NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says it's the "beginning of a new era" for NASA, now that the Shuttle program has ended and the massive craft are making their ways to museums. But nonetheless, he was "very emotional" watching Space Shuttle Discovery make its last flight yesterday to its permanent home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center.
Bolden had "good times in Discovery" when he piloted two of its 39 missions -- one that put the Hubble Space Telescope in order and the other the first with a crew that included a Russian cosmonaut.
NASA's been in the business of "taking science fiction and turning it into science fact" for over 60 years, and Bolden says that's going to continue.
The next destination? Mars. Bolden is confident "we're going to go farther than the moon," in the pursuit of putting humans "in the Martian environment by 2030."
Getting to Mars will cost a lot of money, but NASA is learning how to work within an environment of deficits and shrinking budgets. Bolden explained the agency cooperates with other agencies like the National Oceanaic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of Defense to share costs and work together on projects like sensors on satellites to help with climate, environmental and defense issues. Bolden says NASA can develop the technologies, "check them out, and then turn them over to the people" in other agencies for operational uses.
Bolden is confident telling reporters that even in these times of "very, very strained economics," NASA can continue "making the future" -- including taking people to Mars by 2030.
Between now and 2030, U.S. astronauts won't be idle on the earth. In the short-term, they'll hitch rides to the International Space Station with the Russians. Within the decade, they'll likely be able to get there on American-owned private enterprises.
On April 30, the first major step in putting American space transport back into American's hands is scheduled to happen -- weather permitting. A private U.S. company, SpaceX, is scheduled to make its first cargo delivery to the International Space Station.
The shipment will be an unmanned delivery-and-return, but if all goes according to plan it will mark the beginning of the competition among private companies to decide who will carry American astronauts to space. Private companies will be the way to "bring that responsibility back here to American soil," something everyone seems eager to make happen.
Other frontiers for NASA include the oceans. Bolden explained why NASA would dive into the deep blue: "Our planet's huge and we don't understand a lot about the depths of the ocean. We don't understand a lot, at least as much as we should, about the atmosphere in which we live. And we don't understand anything about the rest of the universe."
Looking toward the future doesn't mean this week isn't a good time to reflect on the history of the shuttle. Bolden himself flew the Hubble Space Telescope into space on the Discovery, and the shuttle program played an instrumental role in constructing the International Space Station. The Space Station, the legacy of the Shuttle Program, is the "toe-hold on the universe for humans." Bolden waxed a little nostalgic, saying it's "a piece of our heritage" that "Americans need to be very proud" of.