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US space program up in the air -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: At this moment, about 400 kilometres above the Earth, crew of the space
shuttle Atlantis are in the process of carrying out urgent repairs to the ageing Hubble space
telescope. It's the riskiest shuttle mission for some time and also one of the last. As America
prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of putting a man on the moon, the future of the US space
program is very much up in the air. North America correspondent Michael Rowland reports.

MICHAEL ROWLAND, REPORTER: On Florida's Cape Canaveral, it's the ultimate tourist attraction.
Thousands have gathered to experience the unparalleled thrill of a space shuttle launch.

'Atlantis' roars into orbit to carry out critical repairs to the Hubble space telescope. The
shuttles have now been flying for nearly three decades. This is one of the last missions ahead of
the fleet's retirement next year.

SCOTT PACE, SPACE POLICY INSTITUTE: It's been a technical and an engineering success in some ways.
It's been a cost to disappointment in others. And it also has had, you know, two terrible accidents
that have, you know, profoundly changed the direction of, you know, US human space flight.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The accidents have overshadowed the successes. In 1986, the shuttle Challenger
exploded shortly after take-off. 17 years later, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned
to Earth and the risks are still there.

SCOTT PACE: The difficulty is that every one of these flights is dangerous and that the industrial
base that supports these shuttles also is declining and going away. So it's, you know, it's rather
like maintaining a high performance sports car when the original factory, you know, isn't in
existence anymore.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The imminent retirement of the shuttles is raising serious questions about the
future of the US space program. The debate over what to do next comes at a time when the world's
preparing to celebrate NASA's greatest achievement.

NEIL ARMSTRONG, ASTRONAUT (archive footage, July 21, 1969): That's one small step for man, one
giant leap for mankind.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: On July 20, it'll be 40 years since Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on
the moon. Four decades on, the US is busily planning a sequel.

JOHN LOGSDON, AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM: Just as the Apollo program was driven by the desire to show the
world the US was technologically and managerially and economically and, by the way, militarily
superior to the Soviet Union, I think an exploration program is a very good way of demonstrating a
continued American position in the world of leadership.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: NASA wants to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020. It's developing
another Apollo-style rocket at a cost of more than $50 billion.

SCOTT PACE: Well this represents really a generational change. There has not been a new human space
flight program in the United States since the shuttle program and the shuttle decision was made in
1972.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: A new moon rover was on proud display during this year's inaugural parade. Barack
Obama supports NASA's moon ambitions, but the project has collided with economic reality. The
President has ordered a review of the expensive plan.

CHRISTOPHER SCOLESE, NASA ACTING ADMINISTRATOR: It's a new administration. They want to understand
where we're at, where we're going, what the commitment's going to be, you know, for the next
several years with this system. So, you know, we're making a commitment for this nation, for human
space flight for many years to come and they need to understand that.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Even if the moon project goes ahead there'll be a five-year gap between the last
shuttle flight and the first launch of the new rocket. In the interim, US astronauts will have to
hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to get into orbit.

With America's space program in a state of flux, Russia may seize an opportunity to score a huge
symbolic victory over its old adversary by beating the US back to the moon.

JOHN LOGSDON: They've said publicly, "Yes, we're going to go back - we're going to go to the moon,
but after 2025." So they have the capability if they decided that they wanted to accelerate that,
to do it, but I don't think they have the will or intent to do it.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The uncertainty clouding the US space program is also having an impact much closer
to Earth. The Florida communities that have depended on the space industry are deeply worried about
their future. Titusville, the closest town to the Kennedy Space Centre is bracing itself for
massive job losses once the shuttle program ends.

MARCIA GAEDCKE, TITUSVILLE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: Probably every household in Titusville has some tie
to Kennedy Space Centre and the space shuttle program. So, we don't know hard numbers yet, but we
know that we're going to have friends and neighbours who will not have a job and are going to have
to look for other ways.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: All of this is making it much harder to excite a new generation of Americans about
the wonders of space exploration.

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT (to elementary school children): Anybody here thinking about being an
astronaut?

SCOTT PACE: People will sometimes say, "Well, we've been to the moon; why are we doing that again?"
And I will sometimes look at them and quickly calculate their age and go, "Maybe your father went
to the moon, but you haven't gone to the moon." And so, we have a generation that's really not
moved beyond low Earth orbit. So, flying to the moon requires not just technology, but also
requires an entire organisation that's trained, equipped to fly beyond low Earth orbit.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: As the moon landing anniversary approaches, there's plenty of nostalgia about
America's past space conquests. NASA's now desperately hoping its glory days aren't behind it.

Michael Rowland, Lateline.