BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – It could be 5 years, maybe more, before NASA launches its next manned missions. But when they do, they could be using technology designed in Colorado.

Having a fleet of re-useable shuttles has been extremely useful and very successful for NASA, but they could be going back to ideas that go all the way back to when NASA was founded. And there is another design that is almost as old as the shuttle program that is already retiring.

The future of manned space flight is literally hidden in a corner at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“It’s a lot smaller than the space shuttle. It’s about, I think, 1/40th of the size of the shuttle,” aerospace engineering graduation student Sarah Over said.

Graduate students at the university are helping design the mini shuttle. It’s the most likely candidate to take NASA back into orbit.

“This was originally going to be a rescue vehicle, and to transfer astronauts to and from as its original purpose,” Over said.

Friday morning’s shuttle launch is the end of an era for NASA. For aerospace companies in Colorado it’s time to shift focus. Ball Aerospace is working on a new weather satellite worth more than $1 billion. It’ll go into space without any man power. But there are bigger dreams — manned missions to asteroids, a return to the moon, and trips to Mars.

“Those are lofty goals and they are long-term goals, and they require a lot of technology and road-mapping,” Carl Gelderloos with Ball Aerospace said.

The Orion space capsule, being designed in Boulder by Lockheed-Martin, will resemble NASA’s first venture into space with staged rockets like the Saturn and Apollo missions. But those trips, deep into outer space, are not near.

“In the next few decades it’s going to be crucial to develop those technologies,” CU aerospace engineer Ryan Horn said. “Developing those counter measures to sustain those longer range missions.”

Aerospace experts say they still need to know how they’re going to get the Orion capsule into space. They say NASA could make those announcements before the end of July.

When Atlantis returns it will be put on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Discovery and Endeavour already are retired and being prepped for museums in suburban Washington and Los Angeles.


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