With the space shuttle program no longer in operation, curious kids are wondering how future astronauts will travel to outer space. Without a space shuttle, how will astronauts fly?

Unlike the Apollo missions that sent men deep into outer space to the Moon, the space shuttle was made to take astronauts and cargo into low Earth orbit. Low Earth orbit means the space shuttle travels an elliptical path around the Earth about 100–1,240 miles above its surface.

Since the first space shuttle flight in 1981, there have been more than 130 space shuttle launches. The space shuttle has been used for many interesting missions. Space shuttles have taken astronauts into space, launched satellites, completed scientific experiments, fixed other spacecraft, and played an essential role in the building and maintenance of the International Space Station.

Over the course of the space shuttle program, there have been six orbiters. The orbiter is the big, white space plane most people think of when they think of the space shuttle. The last three orbiters to fly missions were Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Challenger and Columbia were both lost due to tragic accidents. Enterprise was used as a test vehicle and never flew into space.

When the space shuttle was first launched, it represented a huge leap forward in technology, because it became the world’s first reusable spacecraft. It was also unique in that it launched like a rocket, orbited the Earth like a spacecraft and landed like an airplane.

The last launch of Atlantis brought the space shuttle program to an end. Future astronauts may be able to hitch a ride to the International Space Station with one of the United States’ international partners, such as Russia. Private companies may also soon be able to fly astronauts to the International Space Station in newly-developed vehicles.

The next step for the American space program appears to be a return to deep-space missions. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently announced that it will develop a space capsule — called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) — able to carry four astronauts into deep space to locations such as the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars.

NASA hopes to have the new MPCV flying into space by about 2016. Like the old Apollo spacecraft, the MPCV will splash into the Pacific Ocean upon its return to Earth. That’s about the only thing that’s like the past, though, as NASA claims the MPCV will be much larger and much safer to launch and land than the space shuttle.

20 Join the Discussion

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  1. We really like how you guys explained how the first space shuttle was and if we go to other planets how it will be a different space shuttle. We have always wanted to learn what is on other planets and could we use some of whats on other planets for earth. We read an article that said NASA is going to stop making space shuttles, and the U.S. is going to rent it from other places.

    Do you think Mars is the next place for human life because it might have water?

    Mrs. Taylor’s second period class

    • We’re not sure if humans will be able to live on Mars, Rymeka, but it is fun to think about traveling to other planets! Thank you for leaving us this great comment today! :-)

  2. I like how this wonderopolis describes future opportunities, and possible discovery waiting in store. But, I wanted to know, why hasn’t NASA tried to build a spaceship that can hold more than just a few people in space? And, build it bigger with more resources available while in space. And, why don’t we try to create some way to travel fast, like a warp drive?
    Thanks for your time. :)

    • We love all your WONDERful questions, Wonder Friend HI! Perhaps you’ll join NASA and build the first 20-passenger spaceship! HOORAY for WONDERing! :)

    • Great comment, Josh! We think you’ll enjoy one of our Wonders this weekend, too! We Wonder if you would like to be an astronaut when you are older? :)

    • Hi Adrianna! We are so thrilled that you are WONDERing with us! With all of the intricate designs of a space shuttle, we bet it takes a long time to make one! Thanks for WONDERing with us today! :)

  3. We are wondering what a future space shuttle looks like? We would like to know exactly how fast do you have to go to get into space? Our Tin Mountain teacher’s son-in-law works for Space X – we have seen one of their rockets launch into space. It was very exciting.

    • Hi FES Second Graders! Thanks for WONDERing with us! That is so neat that you’ve seen a rocket launch into space! You probably noticed that it went extremely fast! We are so glad you are WONDERing with us! :)

      • Hi YC! Some believe that life in space already exists, while others aren’t so sure! We’ll just have to keep WONDERing until someone can provide hard evidence for one way or the other! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  4. Hello
    I wonder what the new spaceships will look like. If they will be a lot sleeker or if they will have different sizes. I also wonder when these new spaceships will be launched into space. Will the astronauts will not have to wear space suits or will they?

    • Hi NB! These new spaceships are constantly being designed! Large ones that carry people and even robotic controlled ones! The astronauts will continue to wear space suits because the conditions of space have not changed in that way, just our technology has! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  5. This was really cool. Please do a wonder when they do send out the MPCV. I know it is a long way away but please remember to do that. I would be amazed if I saw the take of.

  6. This is my favorite type of subject. I mean space and all. If I ever get the chance to I am going to the moon. I’ve always dreamed of going there.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How will future astronauts travel to outer space?
  • What is low Earth orbit?
  • Why was the space shuttle unique?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

Ready to explore outer space? Find a few adventurous friends or family members to help you check out one or more of the following out-of-this-world activities:

  • Where do you think the next frontier in space exploration is? What type of spacecraft would we need to get there? Put your imagination to the test. Discuss your thoughts with friends and family members. What do they think? Feel free to search the Internet for pictures or descriptions of the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being designed by NASA. Would the MPCV work for your mission? Or would it need to be redesigned in some way?
  • Where should we send astronauts next? Back to the Moon? Mars? Somewhere else? Choose a destination, and then get out your art supplies and create a picture of the spacecraft you think will be necessary to get there. Will it look something like the space shuttle? The old Apollo rockets? Or something brand new?
  • Up for a challenge? Write a short story about where you believe we should send astronauts next. Why should this destination be chosen? What’s so special about it? What might we learn by going there? Make sure you do some research about your chosen destination, so that you can make your story as persuasive as possible by including actual facts about the place that influence why you believe we should send astronauts there. When you’re finished, we want to see what you come up with. Email or send us copies of your story and pictures!

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