Image: Discovery
Jack Pfaller  /  NASA
Space shuttle Discovery moves out of the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building for the last time on Sept. 20, 2010 to prepare for its final mission to the International Space Station.
updated 10/1/2010 3:07:07 PM ET 2010-10-01T19:07:07

Congress passed a new NASA authorization bill this week, just in time for the space agency's birthday tomorrow (Oct. 1). But the space agency's anniversary finds a NASA in the middle of shifting gears to embrace a new exploration regime.

The bill, approved by the House last night (Sept. 29), authorizes NASA to embark on a new direction outlined by President Obama, and to abandon old plans laid out by the Bush administration to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA will now aim to send explorers to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.

Tomorrow marks the 52nd anniversary of the day NASA officially opened its doors to begin the heady task of sending people into space and exploring the universe.

Having a clearer picture of where the agency is heading, thanks to the newly passed bill, is exactly what NASA leaders were hoping for as a birthday present, NASA's deputy chief Lori Garver said.

"To have the leadership of the Congress take that step is important right now because you have the NASA work force, I think, really looking for the direction for the future," Garver told earlier this week. [ NASA's New Direction: FAQ ]

The U.S. space agency is still in for a rough transition.

This anniversary is coming as NASA winds down its space shuttle program, which has been the national standard bearer for human spaceflight for the past 30 years. Two more shuttle missions are scheduled with a third one just approved with the new bill before the three-orbiter fleet retires for good.

With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, tomorrow (Oct. 1) nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Today (Oct. 30), NASA contractor Lockheed Martin, which built the 15-story external fuel tanks for the shuttle fleet, announced that it has finished its tank production duties after 37 years.

Lockheed Martin built the huge orange fuel tanks at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The facility employed 1,438 at the start of 2010. Today, only 600 remain, Lockheed officials said.

"It is clearly an agency in transition," said former astronaut Leroy Chiao, who served on the independent Augustine Commission that helped shape Obama's new space plan. "Transition is the difficult time, especially for the people who are losing their jobs But I am optimistic that what will emerge is a stronger, more robust program and agency, once the transition is worked through."

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The new path also lays the groundwork for a stronger partnership between NASA and commercial space companies, with funding put in place by the bill to encourage development of private spacecraft that can ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station once the shuttle is gone.

These kind of changes will likely shape the future of American spaceflight for decades to come, some space program experts said.

"I think NASA is kind of at a crossroads, and that's obvious," said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "The decisions that are made here there's a lot riding on this. It's going to govern human spaceflight for the next 25 to 30 years, probably."

Great expectations
NASA's illustrious past especially its achievement of being the first and still only program to put people on the moon does set a high bar for the future to live up to, space industry experts said.

"As we look at what we've accomplished in the first 52 years, it does make it a little daunting," Garver said. "I dont think there's any question that NASA beating the Russians to the moon and sort of establishing during this Cold War race the U.S. as a superpower in a peaceful way, is the pinnacle achievement. I guess my view is it was really only the beginning."

The moon shot of Apollo 11 in July 1969 influenced a whole generation of people, especially many who ended up joining NASA.

"When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I was eight years old," Chiao wrote in an e-mail. "That event inspired me to dream of becoming an astronaut myself, and inspired a whole generation of young people to achieve.  Not one of us would have thought that we would not have gone to Mars by this point, back in those days."

Instead, NASA is looking toward a near future without the ability to launch humans to space after the end of the space shuttle era. During that time, the United States will be dependent on the Russians for space transport, until an American commercial alternative is available.

"However, I see this as a blip, and am optimistic that we will re-emerge as the leader in human spaceflight, albeit a few years down the road," Chiao said.

The next 50 years
Chiao said he hoped private spaceships would be available soon to take over the responsibility of carrying astronauts to low-Earth orbit. In that case, NASA could focus on deep-space exploration.

Launius agreed, and said he hoped that the next 52 years would see exciting missions to new destinations.

"I'm not getting any younger and I'd like to see us go someplace before I'm gone," he said.

Garver said she was confident that can be accomplished in the next half century.

"As we explore with humans and robots beyond low-Earth orbit, the destinations include for sure the asteroid mission the president has specifically outlined for 2025," she said. "I think 52 years is a time when, as we develop these capabilities, we'll be able to go to the more interesting destinations."

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Photos: Month in space: September 2010

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  1. Martian sea of sand

    Near Mars' north pole, the landscape is dominated by sand dunes forming a massive erg, or sand sea, much like parts of the Sahara Desert on Earth. In parts of the erg, sand is abundant and covers the entire surface. Here, near the edge, sand is in shorter supply and the dunes are separated by areas of lighter-toned soil. This color-coded image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was captured in July and published on Sept. 1. (NASA /JPL/ University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Dance of the galaxies

    NGC 5426 and NGC 5427 are two spiral galaxies of similar sizes engaged in a dramatic dance. It is not certain that this interaction will end in a collision and ultimately a merging of the two galaxies, although the galaxies have already been affected. Together known as Arp 271, this dance will last for tens of millions of years. This image, released Aug. 30, was taken with the EFOSC instrument attached to the New Technology Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Crazy cones on Mars

    These Martian volcanic cones are similar in size and shape to cones found in Iceland, where hot lava has run over wet ground. The heat from the lava boils the water, which bursts through the lava flow. These steam-driven exploding bubbles of lava throw chunks of molten and solid lava into the air. A long series of such explosions is needed to build up one of the large cones. This image, released Sept. 1, was taken by a high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Creating Curiosity

    Engineers work on the Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 16. Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is due to be launched to the Red Planet from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in late 2011. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Igor the Terrible

    A photo taken from the International Space Station on Sept. 15 shows Hurricane Igor whirling through the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles below. In the foreground you can see a Russian spacecraft docked to the space station. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dodging a bullet

    An extreme ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an exceptionally heavy plasma eruption on the surface of the sun on Sept. 8. Not to worry, though: The resulting blast of electrically charged particles missed Earth. (NASA/SDA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bull's-eye on the moon

    A color-coded topographic map based on data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the 580-mile-wide Mare Orientale, the largest young impact basin on the moon. This basin formed when a projectile hit the moon about 3.8 billion years ago and penetrated deeply into the lunar crust, ejecting huge amounts of material. The image was released Sept. 16 to coincide with the publication of scientific papers about LRO's mission. (NASA / Goddard / MIT / Brown) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Two flashes from Jupiter

    A fleeting bright dot on each of these images of Jupiter marks a small comet or asteroid burning up in the atmosphere. The image on the left was taken on June 3 by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, with a fireball appearing on the right side. The image on the right was taken by Japanese amateur astronomer Masayuki Tachikawa on Aug. 20, with a fireball appearing at upper right. In a report published Sept. 9, NASA said neither event left a lasting mark on the planet. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spiral in space

    A picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, published Sept. 7, shows an unusual spiral nebula around the star LL Pegasi, 3,000 light-years from Earth. Astronomers say the spiral shape was created by material swirling out from one of the stars in a binary-star system. (ESA / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Bootprint on Mars?

    Orcus Patera is an enigmatic elliptical depression near Mars' equator, in the eastern hemisphere of the planet. Located between the volcanoes of Elysium Mons and Olympus Mons, its formation remains a mystery. The favored theory is that the feature was created when a comet or asteroid hit the Red Planet at a shallow angle. This picture of Orcus Patera, released Aug. 27, was taken by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. (ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. NASA's six-legged robot

    The All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, or ATHLETE, is a prototype heavy-lift utility vehicle designed to support future human exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces. ATHLETE got a chance to flex its limbs on Sept. 15 in northern Arizona during NASA's Desert RATS field tests. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Practicing for Mars

    Geologists Jacob Bleacher and Jim Rice take a close look at a rock formation in northern Arizona before collecting samples on Sept. 5. The geologists took part in NASA's Desert RATS exercise, which is aimed at trying out the equipment and procedures that could come into play during a mission to Mars or other interplanetary destinations. The "RATS" in the name stands for "Research and Technology Studies." (NASA Desert RATS) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ice sculptures in space

    Clouds of gas and dust in the Carina Nebula are sculpted into bizarre shapes by stellar radiation, as seen in this image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and unveiled on Sept. 16. The Hubble team compares the pillars to "cosmic ice sculptures." (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. New York at night

    New York City is ablaze in an image sent by NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on Aug. 28. "The City That Never Sleeps," he wrote in a Twitter tweet. "New York, New York on a clear summer night." (Doug Wheelock / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Shooting a laser at the sky

    This image, released on Sept. 6, shows a laser beam shooting up from the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. The laser beam is used as a guide for the observatory's adaptive-optics system, which compensates for unsteadiness in the atmosphere to produce sharper astronomical images. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Thar she blows!

    A solid rocket motor that could be used on future NASA launch vehicles is tested Aug. 31 at ATK Aerospace Systems' test site in Promontory, Utah. The rocket motor burned for just over two minutes during the successful static test, producing about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. (ATK) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The road ahead

    NASA's Opportunity rover looks across a series of sand ripples and bedrock outcrops toward the rim of Endeavour Crater on the horizon on Sept. 6. Opportunity has just crossed the halfway mark in its trip from Victoria Crater to Endeavour. The rover headed out from Victoria in September 2008. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Saturn and its children

    Four of Saturn's moons join the planet for a well-balanced portrait, released by the Cassini orbiter's imaging team on Sept. 10. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is at lower left. Tethys is at upper right. Two much smaller moons, Pandora and Epimetheus, are barely visible near the rings. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Moon and Earthglow

    A crescent moon is just about to set below Earth's glowing horizon in a picture taken Sept. 4 from the International Space Station. The glow is sunlight scattered by Earth's atmosphere. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Twilight of the shuttle

    Photographers gather early on the morning of Sept. 21 to take pictures of the space shuttle Discovery, just after its arrival at the launch pad. Discovery is scheduled to embark on the shuttle fleet's penultimate mission on Nov. 1. The final shuttle flight, involving Endeavour, is set for launch in February - although there's a chance that one additional mission will be flown. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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