Arnie WeissmannLast week, eight former shuttle astronauts sat on a panel at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) near Titusville, Fla., and discussed the future of manned space flight, including space tourism. If what they predicted comes to pass, fasten your seat belts.

In some ways, they're suggesting that the darkest hour is just before dawn. It has occurred to me that children today must feel a strange sense of living in anachronistic times. Men were walking on the moon while their grandparents were alive, but 40 years later there are no funded plans to suggest they will see something similar.

Their parents could cross the Atlantic at Mach 2 speeds on the Concorde, but there's no commercial aircraft offering them a similar experience. The Concorde and the U.S. space program, once seen as first steps in a continuous evolution that would have us flying higher, faster and farther, might now seem unsustainable one-offs.

Museum pieces, literally.

Kennedy Space Center panelSimilarly, the KSC Visitor Complex, just 38 miles from Orlando, the family leisure capital of the world, began to see a slump in attendance with the end of the shuttle program.

It might seem as if Americans think our space adventures have played out. But have they?

Children, their space-loving parents and the travel agents who plan their vacations, take heart. Manned space flight, past and present, is undergoing a quiet renaissance, and has already entered what both the astronaut panelists and KSC Visitor Complex staff consider its "golden age."

What is going on in the private sector fascinated the panelists. Much of the travel industry is aware of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's project that promises anyone willing to pay $200,000 an opportunity to experience suborbital space flight, but there are several other efforts under way as well.

Panelist and former shuttle astronaut Garrett Reisman is now project manager for DragonRider, a manned spaceflight program being developed by SpaceX, a private company that launched a commercial unmanned rocket this year at Cape Canaveral.

He compared the present development phase for manned space travel to aviation in the 1920s and '30s: "There was a tremendous outpouring of creativity then. No one really knew what an airplane was supposed to look like, and you had all sorts of interesting designs. Today, all airplanes kind of look the same. What you're seeing now is people trying out all sorts of things. We're searching for the optimal answer, and we'll eventually find it."

In an interview after the panel, KSC director and former shuttle astronaut Bob Cabana predicted that, similar to commercial aviation, space flights will become accessible to the masses: "Initially, only the rich could afford to fly in airplanes. Now you and I can afford it. That's how space will be."

Kennedy Space Center makeoverIn the meantime -- after all, it was a good 40 years between aviation's creative phase and when commercial transport became accessible to the masses -- the KSC Visitor Complex is undergoing a massive makeover.

Though KSC, a division of NASA, owns the complex and everything in it, Delaware North Corp. manages and operates it as a concession.

Behind a fence decorated with space themes, a muddy construction site marks the future home of the shuttle Atlantis. Tim Macy, director of project development and a Delaware North employee, gave me a hard-hat tour of the $100 million project and shared renderings and schematics. The shuttle will be shown elevated and at an angle, its bay doors open. Visitors will view it from below and on elevated walkways.

Above it, one of the largest LED screens ever built will display the Earth, with satellites and the International Space Station whizzing by. More than 50 exhibits, including 24 simulators, plus replicas of the Hubble Space Telescope and a portion of the space station will be part of the display.

Among the exhibits will be a replica of the toilet that shuttle astronauts used. "It's what every 13-year-old boy wants to know: How do you go to the bathroom in space?" Macy said.

The Atlantis display is part of a reconfiguration of the entire complex.

Two tours have recently been added to offsite NASA buildings: the Launch Control Center, within window-rattling range of the launch pads, and the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building, where everything from shuttles to the giant Saturn 5 missiles of the Apollo program were assembled. The Atlantis is currently housed in one area within the building, but it will be moved next month and remain out of sight until its new home opens next July.

Kennedy Space Center AtlantisBoth the launch center and assembly building tours might not always be offered. NASA has begun work on its next long-term manned space initiative, the Space Launch System, and, since both buildings are still functioning, work on NASA projects could halt the tours.

One thing that has changed about manned space flight in recent decades is made subtly clear: Space travel is no longer a particularly American phenomenon, and about 45% of the visitors are from abroad.

Macy theorized that because Europeans have more vacation time, when they come to Orlando they explore a bit further afield. "And for them, space is very much an 'us' thing rather than an 'American' thing."

The astronaut panel, which included Japanese shuttle veteran Chiaki Mukai, spoke about the international flavor that manned space exploration has taken on. Astronaut Nicole Scott observed that "the international aspect is huge. If we never got an ounce of science from the space station, the international partnerships" would have made the space station worthwhile.

Added panelist Kent Rominger, "When we go to Mars, it will be as Earth rather than as any single nation."

After a day at the KSC Visitor Complex, space travel seems anything but anachronistic. That spirit was captured in a Launch Center recording of the words Atlantis shuttle commander Chris Ferguson spoke just before liftoff of the program's final flight: "We're not ending a journey today. We're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end."

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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