What does end of space shuttle program mean to US?

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan Many space experts say Americans will be shocked next spring when they finally realize that we will have to rely on Russia to get to space for years to come. So what does that mean to the US space program, and those who work for NASA?

Eyewitness News Anchor Tom Koch just returned from Russia and Kazakhstan and got an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the future of America's space travel.

We were the first American news crew in 15 years to cover a Russian space launch. We traveled first to Moscow and then to Kazakhstan, where Russia launched astronaut Scott Kelly and two cosmonauts on the Soyuz rocket.

After next spring, the Soyuz will be our only way to get to space, and some space experts think America is making a big mistake.

For nearly 30 years, the shuttles have been America's primary space transportation system. But when the final shuttle is retired next June, the only way for Americans to get into space will be on board the Soyuz rocket.

After nearly three decades of watching the sleek, modern shuttle launch, Americans must get used to the idea that NASA's near-term future will rely on Russia.

It was President George W. Bush who decided six years ago to retire the shuttle fleet next year and build another mode of transportation into space. That was a move Russian space officials told us in an exclusive interview that surprised even them.

"It was a surprise for the overall community, and of course to us," said Alexey Krasnov with the Russian Space Agency. "Of course, shuttle is unique as a system; no one can match the capability of the space shuttle."

The plan was for the US to build another space vehicle, one that could eventually carry Americans to the moon and Mars. But NASA didn't have enough time or money to get it done.

Despite that fact, President Barack Obama and congress have decided not to extend the life of the shuttles until a new spaceship is built.

"I m not sure so many Americans actually know that we're not going to have a human space flight program for a while," shuttle commander Mark Kelly said.

Kelly was there to watch his twin brother, Scott, launch on the Soyuz to the International Space Station. He admits relying on Russia is not an ideal situation but one that's been in the plan for a long time.

"But the good news is we're gonna continue, we're gonna build something new, and we'll be flying again here in hopefully five or six years," Kelly said.

NASA officials point out America has been relying on Russia for years, launching many astronauts on board the Soyuz. And they say America will still lead the International Space Station.

"It's a misnomer to say that we're not a leader in space," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator. "We still are leading in space; we're doing it a different way."

"When the shuttle goes away, we're not gonna be the lead on transportation, but we're the lead across the board on many other things," Joel Montablano, NASA's Russia manager, said. "Together we make it happen; no one country can do this."

"I think the United States by giving up the shuttle is making a serious mistake because technologically, it's the most advanced space vehicle in the world, and really there is no reason not to continue to fly it," former Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey said.

In Moscow, Abbey told us NASA should keep flying the shuttle indefinitely and in the meantime build a new space vehicle based on the technology it knows -- winged shuttles. He insists the new rockets that NASA has planned are a step backwards.

"Here we've got really the greatest vehicle in the world, and we are giving it up," Abbey said. "Don't start a whole new type of architecture that causes you to go back and start flying capsules, which gave up many years ago."

Abbey says without the shuttle, NASA has no way to get large cargos into space and that will make it more difficult to operate the space station. And he predicts more big layoffs in Houston and Florida when the shuttle program ends.

"For the United States to be in this situation is poor planning, and it doesn't really exhibit very good vision for the future," Abbey said.

Many space experts say the fault lies with members of congress who are more interested in saving jobs in their districts than funding a long-range, comprehensive plan for America's space future.

Monday on Eyewitness News at 6pm, we will take you inside the Russian space program in both Moscow and Kazakhstan, a place few American reporters have been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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