Atlantis' wheels will hit Earth early Thursday, closing out NASA's epic 30-year space shuttle program for good. But when the dust clears, the space agency has no clear replacement program on the horizon to lead America's return to space, notes the LA Times. Rather, the trailblazing agency is shuffling its feet and mumbling about a private service to ferry astronauts to the space station and vague plans for manned deep-space flights in the 2020s and '30s. "I'm very disappointed about where we are today," said Robert Crippen, an astronaut aboard the first shuttle flight and later NASA exec. "NASA's future is very fuzzy right now."
Even as private industry labors on new space vehicles—such as Lockheed's Orion, which should be ready in 2016 and has its sights set on eventually traveling to an asteroid or perhaps Mars—NASA has misfired at least three times on new launch systems over the past 20 years, and lacks a clear successor. Meanwhile, the agency is bleeding knowledge with thousands of layoffs, and faces very difficult political realities in the form of government funding. "It is important we define what is next and move on it soon," says a Boeing exec . "We have been meandering for the last few years."