NASA prepares for life after space shuttles

Unveils plan to open NASA offices to oversee commercial development of space taxis

As NASA's shuttle program nears its end, the space agency is working hard to lay out a roadmap for the post-shuttle era.

The effort includes the opening of an office at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to oversee NASA's new strategy of issuing contracts for what essentially will be commercially built space taxis that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and possibly to the moon.

The NASA plan, which still requires congressional approval, calls for creating new program that will oversee the commecial development of heavy lift rockets, rocket propulsion technology, and advanced robotics systems, the space agency said.

"These assignments build on the deep knowledge and expertise that NASA has developed during five decades," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement. "They recognize our work force's wealth of experience and commitment, and the specialties already existing at the NASA field centers."

The new NASA plan, which was unveiled to the public yesterday, comes about two months after the release of President Barack Obama's 2011 federal budget proposal.

The Obama budget plan calls for eliminating a NASA project aimed at returning humans to the moon by 2020. Instead, the budget calls for NASA to join with commercial firms to develop new engines, in-space fuel depots and robots that can venture into space.

Obama's plan for NASA has been met with opposition from some members of Congress and from people living in areas housing NASA facilities.

The space shuttle program is currently slated to end in September, though NASA's Office of the Inspector General late last month said the deadline is unlikely to be met. The NASA office said it may take until the second quarter of next year to complete the final four planned space shuttle mission, including the Discovery mission now underway.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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