06/21/2011 08:20 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

Chronicling My NASA Internship

So this is just the introductory who-am-I-and-why-am-I-writing-this-blog first post that every blog has. My name is Zoe Strassfield, I'm 18 years old, I live in Southampton, New York and as long as I can remember, I've always been interested in astronomy. This past February, I was invited to see the final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a special guest of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and I wrote about it here.

This summer, from June 13th to July 15th, I'm going to be working at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC as an intern in the Department of Communications. This blog will chronicle my experiences and the things I learn, and maybe even teach my readers something they didn't know already about science, technology, or space history. But don't worry, I promise I'll try really hard not to make it boring- this is summer vacation, not school! In fact, if there's anything you don't understand, feel free to leave a comment saying so and I promise I'll try to explain it in a later post.

This is a big summer for NASA (and not just because I'll be there) -- the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for July 8th. This will be the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program after 30 years in service, and after it lands, the shuttles will all be spruced up, removed of any gas and other potentially-dangerous chemicals, and sent to museums throughout the country. Enterprise, the first space shuttle built, will be going to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in NYC. (Yes, it was named by Star Trek fans.)

Now, a lot of people have reacted very strongly to this news, asking questions like "Does this mean they're going to get rid of NASA?", "So if they're not going to build new space shuttles, what are they going to build?", and "If they're giving away space shuttles, can I get one?"

First of all, I want to clear something up -- because the Space Shuttle Program lasted for 30 years, a lot of people, like me, spent their whole lives never seeing astronauts launched in any other sort of rocket, so every time we heard NASA was sending people into space, they were "riding on the space shuttle". So, it's completely natural that some people assume every kind of rocket that carries people into space is called a space shuttle and "NASA's not building any more space shuttles" means "NASA's not building any more vehicles to take people into space".

Two years ago, when we had the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, several newspapers and TV stations referred to the vehicles used there as "space shuttles".
This is wrong. All vehicles that take people into space are "spaceships", or "spacecraft", but the name "space shuttle" only refers to the black-and-white airplane thing with the two pointy little booster rockets and the big orange tank.

This is a space shuttle. But this, this and this are not space shuttles. Comprende? Bien.

So, while NASA isn't going to be building any more space shuttles, that doesn't mean they aren't going to be sending people into space anymore, they'll just be doing it in different vehicles. Which brings us to our second question: "So if they're not going to build new space shuttles, what are they going to build?"

Until February of last year, engineers planned on building vehicles for a program that would take people back to the moon called Project Constellation. The three major parts of this system were rockets called Ares, a capsule called Orion, and a lunar lander called Altair. (Ares and Orion are the names of constellations, while Altair is the name of a star in the constellation Aquila.) However, after a study by several space industry experts, officials realized that NASA didn't have enough money to carry out Constellation properly, and the program was cancelled.

And for two months, until President Obama announced what NASA's new direction would be, it was limbo, and I felt very scared and sad and listened to a lot of breakup songs. But last April, in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, he said the following things:

1) Don't go anywhere -- go everywhere: Instead of building spacecraft for only one purpose (like going to the moon), NASA will build vehicles that can be used equally well in many different environments and scenarios. (In orbit around the Earth, on the moon, on Mars, on an asteroid, etc.) The Orion capsule developed for Constellation will be modified for use with these vehicles. This means that if scientists suddenly discover something about a place that makes it more interesting (like, say, an asteroid made out of unusual materials), NASA can use a vehicle they already have to send astronauts to check it out, instead of having to take the time to create an entirely new spaceship for that purpose.

2) Study group: Now that the International Space Station is complete, NASA can focus on conducting research there that will help prepare for voyages further out into the solar system. They'll study how to keep people healthy during long space trips and how different materials and engines work under actual space conditions. (Because when you set out for Mars, you want to have the best gear possible, so you'd better have tested it beforehand.)

3) I get by with a little help from my friends: NASA will get more funding, but they'll also make more partnerships with other countries and private companies interested in building spaceships, to share the cost. Since it will take time to find the best design for the new deep-space vehicles, test them, and build them, in the meantime, astronauts will ride to the station in vehicles provided by the Russian space program and by commercial companies. ("Just call on me, brother, when you need a hand, we all need somebody to lean on...")

Since this plan is so new, it doesn't have a name yet, like "Constellation" or "Space Shuttle". But since just calling it "the new space plan" doesn't feel right, I call it Project Sagittarius in my head. In Greek mythology, Orion was a powerful hunter who died fighting a monstrous scorpion but was made immortal and placed in the sky as a constellation by the gods, who admired his valor. The scorpion was also imprisoned in the sky, as the constellation Scorpius, and the great archer Sagittarius was sent to guard Scorpius and ensure he never escaped.

Since the Orion capsule was the only part of Constellation that survived, and NASA is aiming to avoid the mistakes of the past and set their sights on new targets, I refer to the new plan by the name of that mythical archer. All of NASA's human spaceflight programs before the space shuttle (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), were named for characters from mythology. It's not an official NASA designation, but I have to call it something, so if you see me talk about "Project Sagittarius" on this blog, I'm talking about the new space plan. But remember, that's just my placeholder name.

As for our final question: "If they're giving away space shuttles, can I get one?", the answer is sadly no. Only museums were eligible to receive one, and the final homes of all of the shuttles have already been announced. You'll just have to settle for going to see them there. Like I said before, the Enterprise will be at the Intrepid, while the Discovery will go to the Smithsonian, in Washington, D. C., the Atlantis to the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida and the Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

So that's where NASA stands now and what will be going on this summer when I'm working there. My next post will be when I arrive in Washington, D.C.

Until then, I'm Zoe.