Congress passed a new NASA authorization bill this week, just in time for the space agency's birthday on Friday. 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 on Wednesday night, 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.
Friday 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 Space.com 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. On Friday, nearly 1,400 shuttle workers were laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance, a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
On Thursday, 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."
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."
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."