The Future of Space Exploration as the Space Shuttle Program Ends

We learned some really amazing space missions are in development!  Last week we watched the Space Shuttle Discovery in awe as it flew close by our house towards its final destination. The Space Shuttle Program has truly come to an end. We went to see the space shuttle is in its new home at the Udvar-Hazy National Air and Space Museum, but we were surprised to learn just how much is still in the works for the human exploration of space!

Hubby took the day off and we were thoroughly engrossed in the celebratory activities (Discovery Festival) at the Air and Space Museum  There were amazing activities for the kids and dozens of professionals from all branches of the space program. For one thing, they got to shake hands with and talk to Captain Bill Readdy (I think that was who it was) who flew on Discovery twice.  LD asked him what his scariest moment was.  The Captain told us that once a countdown was aborted with TWO seconds to spare.  They thought there might be a hydrogen fire (which is invisible to the naked eye) and the moment was incredibly tense for them. The kids were thrilled to meet and talk with a real astronaut!

There were so many informative guides there.  We learned that there are actually three different kinds of heat tiles/shield. The grey tiles you see at the front of the space shuttle and along the wings can withstand temperatures of upwards of 4,000 degrees! The black tiles can withstand temperatures of around3,000 degrees and the white areas can withstand temperatures of about 1,500 degrees.  They have a patchwork of tiles so that they can be replaced easily if damage is done to one particular area. The kids even got to hold one of the tiles which is about 4 inches thick or so. (NASA lesson plan about Space Shuttle tiles: Grades 2-4 or Grades 5-8 includes photos of the shuttle & tiles.)  The round cylinder at the bottom of the picture collage above is the space lab which flew with the shuttles. That was where various science experiments took place.

There were so many fantastic things for the kids to do. They got to try on the space gloves and space boots of the space suit and saw the astronaut’s space diapers MAGs which they wear during lift-off. Check it out in the picture below!

The kids did a scavenger hunt all around the museum and dressed up in space suits to play and do some space art.

Replacing the Space Shuttle Program (in low Earth orbit): What was fabulous about the Discovery Festival was how many NASA teams (and other experts) had displays and talked about the space programs currently in the works.  The shuttle program is at an end, but there are new space vehicles in various stages of development ready to take its place. The Commercial Crew Development program is administered by NASA, but funded by private corporations and individuals.   These craft will service the space station, transport astronauts, launch commercial satellites and things like that.  Here some of the private companies who have space vehicles under development (see the poster below as well):

  • Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, set up the aerospace company Blue Origin. (See the poster below.)  That company was awarded money from NASA for development to support future manned space flight operations. In 2011, for example, it received a commitment of $22mil in funding for the second phase of the Commercial Crew Development Program. NASA video update on the Blue Origin program from March 2012.
  • The Sierra Nevada corporation is developing an orbital spacecraft called the Dream Chaser.
  • The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation or Space X was founded by former PayPal entrepreneur, Elon Musk. It plans to launch a geostationary satellite in 2013. It was also awarded a contract by NASA and is planning its first first crewed Dragon/Falcon9 flight in 2015.
  • Boeing is developing the CST-100, a 7-person space capsule whose primary mission would be to transport crew to the international space station.
  • Below is the poster and the models of the vehicles under development for low Earth orbit. These are being funded privately and with contracts for the US government:

Farther out in Space: There’s also development under way for space vehicles to go beyond low Earth orbit. We saw the flagship of our nation’s next-generation space fleet, Orion. It is designed for deep space human exploration missions to destinations beyond low Earth orbit such as asteroids, Lagrange points, or even Mars.  Below is a poster along with a photo (lower right) of the capsule I took.

Hubble Telescope: With the space shuttle program at an end, things are pretty uncertain for the Hubble Telescope. No more repairs can be made, so they expect that things will start to fail in the early 2020s.  There’s a new telescope in the works, but times are uncertain for the people involved in work the Hubble telescope. Hubble’s successor is called the James Webb Space Telescope. That mission was under review for cancellation but in Nov. 2011 the plans to cancel were reversed.  That project is led by NASA, but is an international collaboration of 17 countries. According to the NASA website, they’re hoping for a launch in 2018.

Exploration of Mars: We talked to one of the scientists who works on the Mars Space Laboratory mission.  Currently the space rover, Curiosity,  is enroute to Mars and is scheduled to land this August 2012. Hubby and I have a good friend who has worked on the on-board computers for the Mars rovers (among other things).  He said proudly, “Our computer was designed for a 90-day mission and continues to work eight years later!”   Hopefully the Mars Rover Curiosity is as much of a success!


So, we learned that there is a lot of excitement and hope for the exploration of space in the coming months, years and decades!


We also saw the Enola Gay, the infamous plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  What I learned from one of the guides was incredibly fascinating and I wanted to share that:  Less than 2% of the uranium actually set off when it exploded… meaning that 98% of the uranium was ineffective. 98% was a dud!!! With more than 140,000 people dead, can you imagine the power if the other 98% had actually been set off when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima?


We all learned a lot about the space program in general. What an amazing festival put on by the museum!

Want to learn more?  Here are some useful links

NASA Lesson Plans and Resources:

NASA Kids Club Online Games:

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  1. October 27, 2014

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