HOUSTON --The return of Atlantis means the end of an era for many who've worked for the space shuttle program. On Monday, crew members placed an American flag that flew on the first space shuttle 30 years ago on the hatch leading to the shuttle. It will stay there until another U.S. rocket gets there to pick it up. But now, the race is on to build that rocket.
It will be years and a lot of that work is done by private companies, not NASA, at the Jonhson Space Center. But it doesn't mean our neighbors here in Space City are standing still.As the team at Johnson Space Center watched Atlantis' Launch, so many of them were really watching their jobs get that much closer to ending. But it is not as if JSC is closing. "We have a lot more to do. There's a lot of great work ahead," said Jenny Mitchell with NASA. The Robonaut project is just part of the space future in Houston. There's one Robonaut here, another version on the International Space Station where it will soon perform some of the many routine maintenance tasks. Teams at JSC are working with this, too. It's called MORPHEUS. "This is all developed here in-house at JSC," said Mitchell, who works on the MORPHEUS team. It's likely more well known for starting a grass fire earlier this summer at Johnson Space Center than its real mission, but the small rocket is a prototype for a moon or Mars Lander. "When we go some planetary body, some surface, there's no crew on board, you need the capability to land very precisely and not put a leg at the Lander and a hole or a crater or on a rock," Mitchell said. And teams are already at work at JSC to keep humans alive once we get there. NASA's clearly planning on a lot more places to explore. You can tell from their current designs of the suits right now, they're planning on astronauts doing it, which is why they're already developing the technology to allow humans to explore safer and easier than they did 40 years ago on the moon. "We have to develop a lot of new technologies," said Anita Chambers with NASA. There may not be life when astronauts get to Mars, but it's all proof there is life for JSC after the shuttle. In the short term future, NASA's team on board the shuttle is sleeping now. But after they undock on Tuesday, they still have work to do releasing a small military satellite before gliding home at dawn on Thursday.