POSTED: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 - 8:51pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 - 9:37pm
NBC NEWS — As the shuttle turns away from the international space station, NASA is also saying goodbye to manned space flight, for now.
The space agency will launch satellites and earth science missions, but already behind the schedule they created, NASA administrators were reprimanded by congress for not having a plan for manned flight in place.
Budget cuts have eliminated the constellation moon project, and opened up the next generation of low-orbit ships to commercial contractors.
Spacex is considered the current leader in a race between 4 companies hoping to be the first to develop an astronaut rated ship.
The target date for the next manned mission is 3-5 years, but the last man to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan, doesn't believe there is any way private industry can take such a huge step so fast.
“The commercial sector is still walking around like, like a young kid learning to walk,” said Cernan. “They don't know what the risks are. They don't know what they don't know.”
Many fear that those who do know - NASA scientists, engineers, analysts and technical personnel - will be squeezed out of the new equation.
At its height, the shuttle program employed nearly 13,000 people, and when Atlantis' wheels roll to a stop, only 300 will remain.