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.

80 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! :-)

      • Hey there, Wonder Friend Carolina! We LOVE your thinking about the things you think you would need to make outer space the PERFECT place to live! Thank you for joining the Wonderopolis fun 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.

    • Thank you for your AWESOME response to today’s Wonder, Danielg! We appreciate your enthusiasm and excitement! :)

    • We love when Wonder Friends keep WONDERing after reading our Wonders, Jordan. This is a SUPER question. We did a little research and found that fortunately no astronauts have actually gotten lost in space. When we refer to “lost” we mean like getting lost in the grocery store or woods. Thanks for joining us to WONDER today! :)

    • We are being asked some WONDERful questions today in Wonderopolis, Kiyoshi. We think that would be a great question for you to explore on your own. Happy WONDERing! :)

    • It sound like you have been doing some of your own research, Calub. Thanks for visiting Wonderopolis and commenting today! :)

    • We’re so glad you learned something from reading today’s Wonder, Chris! Way to go! We hope you WONDER with us again soon! :)

  7. This was an interesting wonder. I was actually wondering what NASA was going to do now that the Space Shuttle has been retired. Thanks!

    My students and I are having a difficult time getting to each wonder of the day because your web address takes us to Camp Wonderopolis. We aren’t going to be joining camp because it’s a little too young for us, 6th graders. Is there a new web address to get to the wonder of the day?

    • Thanks for visiting us today, Alison! There are two ways you can visit the Wonder. The first way is to click the yellow icon at the bottom of the “Camp” page that says, “VISIT WONDEROPOLIS.ORG”. The second way is to go to wonderopolis.org/home/ We hope this helps! :)

    • We LOVE that you are WONDERing what tomorrow’s Wonder will be, Khyreese! We think you’ll have to join us again tomorrow to find out! :)

    • We agree with you, Logan, space is AWESOME to learn about. We’re so HAPPY you spent time WONDERing with us today! :)

    • Hi there, Wonder Friend Tyler! We appreciate you visiting and leaving us a comment today! We look forward to WONDERing with you again soon! :)

    • We like your honesty, Wonder Friend Bryce. Sometimes we just don’t know the answer to the Wonder, do we? We hope you learned something after reading it today! :)

    • What a FABULOUS question, Wonder Friend Jacob! All school are not named after space shuttles. Some are named after famous people like George Washington or the neighborhood or city the school is located in like Ridgewood. Is your school named after one of the space shuttles? Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  8. How come you guys did not raise money? If you would’ve raised money they could’ve went in space and they could’ve had a better chance of seeing the moon. And if I was to travel out of space i would bring food and water and a space suite and helmet.

    • So GLAD you are WONDERing with us today, Amaria! We’re not sure why money wasn’t raised to save the space shuttle program. That’s a GREAT question! :)

      We think food and water would be important for going to outer space. Thanks for sharing what you would bring! :)

  9. I think future astronauts would travel in a flying car.But the flying car would be big and full of rocket things.

    • That would be a FUN way to travel to outer space, Wonder Friend Lawrence! We’d LOVE to have a flying car here in Wonderopolis! Thank you for the AWESOME comment today! :)

  10. If astronaut isn’t able to go to space they should build something like a building but more of an shape like a triangle but in the end of every angle its more of an round shape.but at the surface there need to be something that can stand a certain temputure of the certain planet surface.

    • What a well thought out plan, Wonder Friend Sian Pi! You did some AWESOME WONDERing about a building in outer space! We’re proud of you! We’re sending virtual high fives your way! :)

    • We’re SO GLAD you LOVE visiting Wonderopolis, Wonder Friend! What did you learn about astronauts traveling to outer space today? We hope you had a WONDERful Wednesday! :)

    • Thanks for letting us know you like our Wonders and videos, Wonder Friend Sanela! We hope you keep coming back! :)

    • We agree, Bria. Learning facts about space is lots of FUN! What was your favorite fact? Thanks for spending time WONDERing with us today! :)

  11. Astronauts are really interesting. The fuel that they are burning is breathtaking I wonder how much fuel is in the space shuttle. I wonder if they will create robots so that no astronauts will go up to space.

  12. I think people will be able to live on Mars. The only problem is soil as it needs to be transported from Earth. Other Problems mostly air, I think we should make air tight homes in mars that have double doors so if you get in, you open one door, close it so our air doesn’t go out and open the other so we can get inside

    • Thank you for sharing your ideas, Soo Yone! We like WONDERing about living on a different planet! It also is pretty cold on Mars, so we’d need to devise a way to stay warm! :)

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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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