What's next for NASA?

What's next for NASA?

Final flight for NASA's space shuttles

The world watched in awe as the last ever NASA space shuttle took off. This video shows the final trip for one of mankind's greatest achievements.

On 8 July 2011, the space shuttle Atlantic blasted off for the last time, 30 years and 3 months after the very first shuttle flight. Over the past 30 years, space shuttles have been at the forefront of NASA's space programme.

What's next for space flight?

NASA doesn't have a replacement for the space shuttle. They are relying on Russian space craft to take American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). In future, NASA plans to give the job of flying astronauts to the ISS to private companies. One day, these private companies could be flying you to space too!

Virgin Galactic is already taking bookings for tourists who want to go into space, but it costs a whopping $200,000. Eventually though, prices might come down as equipment and space technology becomes cheaper. Once upon a time travelling to America was only possible for the super rich - now lots of people go there on holiday every year. Maybe one day travelling to the moon will be just like flying to America.

Virgin Galactic spacecraft

Drawing of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (c) Virgin Galactic

The end of the space shuttle doesn't mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. NASA is focussing its resources on building a new spacecraft that can take humans further than ever before, with the ultimate goal of landing on Mars. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will take humans out of Earth's orbit and possibly beyond the moon.

Orion spacecraft landing

Drawing of the Orion spacecraft landing (c) NASA

NASA are also working on some technologies that sound more like science fiction than science fact - refuelling depots in space, solar propulsion and life-support systems to take astronauts on missions that could last years.

As well as working on how to send humans even further into space, NASA are working on unmanned spacecraft. On July 16 the spacecraft Dawn will begin a year-long visit to the large asteroid Vesta to help us understand the beginning of our solar system. In August, the Juno spacecraft will set off for Jupiter to investigate its origins, structure and atmosphere. These unmanned spacecraft will help us understand more about our solar system and could provide useful information for future human exploration of space.

Although the end of the space shuttles marks the end of an era, it's not over for NASA. Their vital research will continue to shape space exploration for the next century.