A new commercial rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, while NASA studies whether to reduce its astronauts

A privately built rocket launched from Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, a milestone in a new era of commercial space flight.

And as a result, the midlife crisis of the American astronaut is in full swing.

At the same time NASA is shutting down space shuttles after 29 years, it also is handing off key parts of the space program to a new generation of private companies, like the one that just launched the Falcon 9 rocket and its unmanned Dragon spacecraft, which splashed into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA is studying whether to cut the number of astronauts on its payroll — not surprising, considering they won't have space shuttles to fly anymore. At the same time, private companies are getting closer to launching "space tourism" flights.

All of which makes this a strange turn in the life cycle of an American icon.

During the space race of the 1960s, astronauts became instant heroes, and it seemed every American schoolkid wanted to be one. Now space travel is more routine, and in some ways the jets have cooled.

"Personally, I think that today's high schoolers or (recent) college graduates maybe see astronauts as basically pilots of major aircraft," said Joe Cuenco, executive director of the Pinellas Science Center.

He said NASA still excites children, like those who came to the science center in September for the thrill of speaking via satellite to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. But the enthusiasm is less than it used to be "because we've made it so matter-of-fact. Is there as much interest in that program? Probably not."

This waning interest may be inevitable, said Natalie Spencer, 21, a mechanical engineering student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, who has wanted to be an astronaut since she was 3.

Spencer, who worked as a NASA intern at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said she has met 15 to 20 astronauts and loved talking with them.

For them, "it's not the same rock star status anymore" compared to when the whole country was focused on Mercury 7 astronauts such as Alan Shepard and John Glenn. But that reflects the space program's success over time, she said. "In that way, it's great that we've been able to have so many" astronauts, she said.

Growing up north of Seattle, Spencer said everyone in her school and church knew she wanted to be an astronaut. Everyone was supportive, but "I was definitely the only one who had that interest."

Now, she sometimes shares information about the space program with some of those friends, or shows them things such as a video of a microgravity experiment she did in college. "They all think it's really cool. But on a daily basis they don't spend much time thinking about it."

The space shuttle program will shut down after two or three more flights, including one set to launch Feb. 3 with Clearwater astronaut Nicole Passonno Stott. After that, instead of sending food and supplies to the space station via space shuttles, NASA can do it by hiring private companies such as SpaceX, the company created by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, which launched the Falcon 9 on Wednesday. Eventually, it's possible the company could take NASA astronauts into orbit.

That's why Wednesday's launch was so closely watched by NASA and the space industry. NASA has a similar arrangement with another company.

Why is NASA giving this work to someone else?

Partly so it can do things that are more exciting, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a recent interview.

"It takes a lot to operate and fund access to low Earth orbit," said Bolden, a former astronaut who flew four shuttle missions. "We're going to pass that responsibility on to commercial entities."

Ceding this work to the private companies means NASA can "go beyond Earth orbit into deep space to do the kinds of missions that people have dreamed about forever," Bolden said.

One example, he said, is "putting humans in the vicinity of an asteroid, if not on it." NASA is at work on a rocket and space capsule that would be used for such missions, but they will take years to develop.

"NASA," Bolden said, "is going to enable your Buck Rogers experiences to become real."

If so, maybe astronauts will be like rock stars once again.

Whether they are or not, Spencer says she will continue pursuing her dream of space flight. She said would even consider signing up for a mission to Mars that could take a couple years.

At Embry Riddle, the university near Cape Canaveral with close ties to the space program and commercial aviation, she's not alone. It's one place where people still dream of being astronauts.

"Among our students, I haven't seen any real change," said John Olivero, chairman of the physical sciences department, who has taught at the university for 17 years. "We're still getting the ones who are really gung-ho about going to space. And of course nowadays, they're thinking about future missions to the asteroids and eventually to Mars."

Former space shuttle astronaut Don Thomas, who runs a science education program in Maryland, said there's another place where people are still enthused about space: any classroom he visits. And he talks to 15,000 students a year.

Young people are still excited to hear about the world beyond Earth, where your body will float and a squirt of water becomes a sphere hovering in front of your face. He ends most talks with a picture that shows Mars and the shadows of the first two astronauts ever to set foot there.

That's you, he tells them.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

A new commercial rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, while NASA studies whether to reduce its astronauts 12/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 9, 2010 9:36am]

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