Space exploration has stirred imaginations and piloted hopes and dreams, but the future of space travel looks very different from the age in which Neil Armstrong made it to the moon.
Since NASA is no longer doing manned missions, astronaut hopefuls have turned their sites on the private sector.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is one example of space entrepreneurship. He's been investing in private rockets and spaceships, leading two missions to the International Space Station in 2012.
Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Airlines, has founded a private space company of his own called Virgin Galactic. He says he hopes to open a spaceport in New Mexico for tourists later this year. He'll offer a six-minute, weightless ride into space.
A slew of other private companies are building and testing spaceship prototypes to carry people and cargo, all in the hopes that space exploration will be profitable.
John Grunsfeld, a retired astronaut and associate administrator for science at NASA, says this is all just as it should be. He says it's a natural evolution — a sort of seed company spinoff from NASA.
"The reason they're successful is because we've had 50 years of investment in learning how to explore space," he tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.
The technology that's been developed over the years by NASA is now being used in the private sector.
"When they are successful, it will make our space program stronger and also provide an economic engine for the country," Grunsfeld says.
Eyes On The Stars
For astronaut-hopeful Brian Shiro, these private companies may be his best hope of getting off Earth. Shiro, 34, has wanted to be an astronaut since he went to space camp in middle school. The geophysicist has the skills: math, science, multiple marathons.
He's invested all his vacations and free time to training, and he has a blog, Astronaut for Hire. He's even experienced zero gravity in a centrifuge in a NASA-sponsored training exercise.
He has applied twice to be a NASA astronaut, but last week he found out he once again didn't make the cut. He's not worried; he intends to become an astronaut with or without NASA. Shiro says he's ready at a moment's notice.
"If you need an astronaut, I'm here," he says.
Record-breaking former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria says Shiro shouldn't get discouraged. Lopez-Alegria spent seven continuous months in orbit and has done more spacewalking than any other human being. It's not a moment you can relive, he says.
"It's almost like a different dimension, like a dream," he says.
Although he had to meet very specific education requirements to be an astronaut with the government, he expects the opportunity will open up to people with all kinds of expertise.
As Shiro and others look for private-sector opportunities, NASA is shifting its focus, too. The agency's role, says NASA administrator Grunsfeld, is to keep undertaking things like the Hubble Telescope, Mars rovers and other big-concept ideas.
"What we do at NASA is inspiring. It's reaching, it's visionary, and it inspires people on Earth to try hard things," he says. "I think it's really a sign of great American strength that we do invest the money we do in technology, in these hard projects, in NASA."
That investment isn't what it used to be, though.
"Last year, they did take a hit. They had a relatively flat budget of $17.7 billion — that was still $59 million less than what they got in 2012," says Tariq Malik, managing editor of SPACE.com.
NASA had to take hundreds of millions of dollars out of its planetary science projects, he says.
"And this is in a year when they had a spectacular success: They landed the biggest robot on Mars that can move around, the Curiosity Rover," Malik says.
A budget of $17.7 billion may sound huge, but Grunsfeld says it isn't, really.
"Our country ... invests a tiny fraction of 1 percent in NASA, and this is what's so amazing to me," he says, "is with that small investment, we do so much for the country."
Forget The Moon
President Obama has re-conceived the next big space push: sending astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025, and then to possibly try for Mars in the mid-2030s. Malik says he thinks visiting an asteroid is gutsy.
"Everyone can see the moon at night. When Obama took office, he scrapped that plan ... to trade with this asteroid one, which they hope will capture the imagination of folks more because it's never been done before," he says.
Malik points out that space exploration is still wildly popular with the public. Last year, NASA got more applicants for the next astronaut training class than ever before. That class will be announced this spring.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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LYDEN: Space exploration - it stirred our imaginations, piloted our hopes and dreams as a people, made us dizzy over its possibilities of a brave new world of tomorrow land.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "STAR TREK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Space, the final frontier.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) America's Mercury astronauts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "APOLLO 13")
BRETT CULLEN: (as CAPCOM) Say again, please.
TOM HANKS: (as Jim Lovell) Houston, we have a problem. We have a main bus...
LYDEN: But in the future, will the great NASA program that put Neil Armstrong on the moon put the next and the next generation of astronauts anywhere off Earth? Would you settle for exploring an asteroid? Or will our airbrushed dreams of space evolve with a kind of public private partnership that couldn't have been imagined when Houston signed his still used slide rulers? That's our cover story tonight: Where we've been, where we're going and the future of space exploration, an earthling perspective.
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LYDEN: Brian Shiro is a distinctly terrestrial sort. First of all, he's a geophysicist. That's just his day job, though. He's still working on his childhood dreams.
BRIAN SHIRO: When I was in middle school, I went to space camp down in Alabama, which was just phenomenal. And, you know, I knew then that I had to be an astronaut. In fact, I remember I was up in the front of the group of kids and I asked, where's your Zero-G room because I just thought it had to exist.
LYDEN: Brian Shiro who's 34 now lives in Honolulu. A generation ago, he would've been in orbit by now and become a NASA astronaut. He's got all the skills, the math, the science, the multiple marathons run. For his dream, he'd invested all his vacation and free time into training to be an astronaut. He did make it to zero gravity in a centrifuge here on earth in a NASA-sponsored training exercise.
SHIRO: This helps prepare you for the, you know, the way of the blood moves in your body during the launch or re-entry. Another thing we do that's really interesting is we spin everybody around in this device you might call a torture device, and it's meant to find where your motion sickness tolerances are.
LYDEN: But now, NASA's just not doing manned missions. Last year was the final year of the space shuttle. Now, if a NASA astronaut wants to get to the International Space Station, he or she must hitch a ride there on a Russian rocket. And as NASA cuts back on the manned mission idea, the private sector is stepping up in various ways. Tariq Malik writes for the website SPACE.com.
TARIQ MALIK: Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, he put all of his own money into these private rockets and spaceships. And last year, in 2012, they flew not only once but twice to the space station with this robotic cargo ship.
LYDEN: One thing space exploration is fostering is adventurism. Richard Branson is the owner of Virgin Airlines. He founded a private space company of his own called Virgin Galactic and hopes to open a spaceport in New Mexico for tourists later this year. He'll offer a six-minute weightless rides into space. And a slew of other private companies are building and testing spaceship prototypes to carry people and cargo, all in the hopes that space exploration will be profitable.
John Grunsfeld is a retired astronaut and the associate administrator for science at NASA. He says this is all just as it should be. It's a natural evolution, a seed company spin-off from NASA, if you will.
JOHN GRUNSFELD: The reason they're successful is because we've had 50 years of investment in learning how to explore space. You know, the technology for the engines, the turbo pumps, the launch systems, the electronics, the computers, you know, all of that is now flowing out into the private sector in these more innovative companies. And when they are successful, it will make our space program stronger and also provide an economic engine for the country.
LYDEN: For astronaut-hopeful Brian Shiro, these private companies may be his best hope of getting off Earth. Twice he's applied to be a NASA astronaut. Last week, he found out once again that he didn't make the cut. No worries, he says. He intends to become an astronaut with or without NASA. So you are ready. You are ready to go into space.
SHIRO: Yeah, at a moment's notice. If you need an astronaut, I'm here.
LYDEN: Check out his website. It's called Astronaut for Hire. Send this man into orbit. How about seven continuous months of orbit? That's how many days and weeks Michael Lopez-Alegria spent in space. He's a record-breaking former astronaut who spent more hours spacewalking than any other human being. And he says Shiro shouldn't get discouraged and neither should you nor I if we want to go into space.
MICHAEL LOPEZ-ALEGRIA: To become an astronaut in the government sense requires a certain sort of type of education, you know, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, that sort of fields. What I would add now is that if you like journalism, for instance, and not math, you can also become an astronaut. It might be a different way, but NPR should be sending people to space in the not-to-distant future.
LYDEN: I'm ready. So NASA's role, says John Grunsfeld, the NASA administrator, is to keep undertaking things like the Hubble Telescope and Mars rovers and other big concept ideas.
GRUNSFELD: What we do at NASA is inspiring. It's reaching, it's visionary, and it inspires people here on Earth to try hard things. I think it's really a sign of great American strength that we do invest the money we do in technology in these hard projects in NASA.
LYDEN: Just last summer when the Mars rover touched down on Mars, the action in the NASA control room was live broadcast to a crowd of thousands in New York's Times Square.
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ALLEN CHEN: Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible). The Curiosity landed on Mars.
LYDEN: But exploration comes at a price, a big one. Let's go back to Tariq Malik, the writer for SPACE.com who explains the NASA budget.
MALIK: Last year, they did take a hit. They had a relatively flat budget of $17.7 billion. That was still, you know, 59 million less than what they got in 2012. And they had to make cuts. They cut hundreds of millions of dollars from planetary science, and this is in a year where they had a spectacular success: They landed the biggest robot on Mars that can move around, the Curiosity Rover.
LYDEN: 17.7 billion sounds astronomical, but it isn't really, says John Grunsfeld of NASA.
GRUNSFELD: Our country, you know, invests a tiny fraction of 1 percent in NASA, and this is what's so amazing to me is with that small investment, we do so much for the country.
LYDEN: So NASA is trying to reset its goals. President Obama has talked not of revisiting the moon, which President George W. Bush had done, and the money for that visit never materialized. Instead, President Obama has reconceived the next big space push.
MALIK: And NASA's goal as set by the Obama administration is to send astronauts out into deep space to visit the near-Earth asteroid by 2025. And if that goes swimmingly, then to taking Mars sometime in the mid-'30s.
LYDEN: And Tariq Malik thinks visiting an asteroid is pretty gutsy.
MALIK: And everyone can see the moon at night. When Obama took office, he scrapped that plan, you know, for - to trade it with this asteroid one, which they hope will capture the imagination of folks more because it's never been done before.
LYDEN: He points out that space exploration is still wildly popular with the public. Last year, NASA got more applicants for the next astronaut training class than ever before. And that class will be announced this spring. So space travel still has a cultural role to play as a change agent for the future, an embodiment of what if.
At the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, visitor Bruce Prestwich(ph) remembers a time when just sending people into space seemed impossible.
BRUCE PRESTWICH: We first heard the beep from Sputnik when I was a kid and nobody thought nobody will ever be able to go into space, no human being.
LYDEN: Sputnik. Remember what we just told you that last year's NASA astronaut applications were the largest cesspool ever. And the dreams of going into space seemed like a shared optimism for us earthlings. Michael Lopez-Alegria says he still wants to go back.
LOPEZ-ALEGRIA: It's amazing now when I look back - and I mean, I sound like an old retired guy, which I am now. But even after I flew the first time and the second time, and a month later, you go back and try to sort of live the moment again and you can't do it. It's just such a different - it's almost a really different dimension, and it's like a dream. So you can be there or you can be here, but you can't be in both places at the same time.
LYDEN: And even if we don't send an astronaut to Mars, we're still making amazing discoveries.
LOPEZ-ALEGRIA: We have discoveries every single day. One of the recent things that we discovered with Hubble is an observation from something called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, and this was an observation where Hubble stared in one part of the sky for a long time to bring out a time-lapse picture of the ancient universe. And we've observed now a galaxy - and actually, there's more than just one galaxy - that existed when the universe was only about 500 million years old. And so we're seeing for the very first time the baby pictures of the universe.
LYDEN: Baby pictures of the universe. Yesterday's news of the Mars rover drilling into rock, a Chinese New Year's greeting and song sent from astronauts in space, new discoveries every day.
The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, author of "The Martian Chronicles" and many other books, died last summer. He was born in 1920 and definitely came from a time when space exploration was only a dream, but it was something he deeply believed in. He once told Playboy Magazine: We need something larger than ourselves. That's a real religious activity. That's what space travel can be: relating ourselves to the universe.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.