STAR POWER: In Vincent van Gogh's 'Starry Night Over the Rhone' (1888), the Big Dipper and Polaris are visible shining above the Rhone River in Arles, France. (Image: NASA)
The Space Age is at a crossroads. After half a century in the public sector, it's going private — even as the field's top minds are looking deeper into space than ever before, planning ambitious missions to Mars, asteroids and beyond. Depending whom you ask, this is either an exciting new era or an "embarrassing" mistake that could derail humanity's excursions beyond low-Earth orbit.
Either way, the upheaval has spurred some anxiety, especially after NASA's shuttle fleet retired last year. The U.S. space agency had more than 150 active astronauts in 1999, but that number fell to just 61 in 2011. Several veteran astronauts have retired in the last two years, and those who remain must rely on balky Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station, at least until private firms can get them there.
Still, the outlook isn't as bleak as it might seem. For one thing, thanks to modern satellites and telescopes, it's now much easier to study space from the comfort of Earth. And aside from unmanned missions like NASA's new Mars rover — slated to reach the Red Planet Aug. 6 — the agency is also planning a manned trip to Mars in the 2030s and one to an asteroid by 2025. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will need hordes of astronauts, scientists and engineers in coming decades to help them get the commercial space industry off the ground.
A new film aims to pass this cosmic optimism on to a new generation, one that missed the excitement of moon landings but grew up watching a parade of shuttle launches. Debuted earlier this month at TEDxISU (organized by the International Space University), the three-minute "Audacity to Dream" is a reminder that "our dreams can take us beyond the skies, into the heavens!" its producers write on YouTube.
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