Washington: The flight into space by NASA`s space shuttle Atlantis this Friday will mark end of the shuttle era, but many believe it may not also mean the end of US hegemony in the space.
Although NASA has led numbers of manned flights into space for three decades, no additional such flights are planned for the moment.
Top officials at the space agency, however, maintain this isn`t the end of this country`s manned effort in space, rather just the beginning of a new chapter.
"I don`t think this means the end of US crewed flights, but we`re in a period of uncertainty and we don`t know for how long," Valerie Neal, the official in charge of the shuttle area at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, told EFE.
"I think that what`s a little disappointing is that we really don`t have a clear vision of what it is that`s going to come after," Neal said. "There`s uncertainty in NASA and among the general public."
After this NASA shuttle flight, private companies will be in charge of developing the technology for future space vehicles.
This will enable the US space agency to focus on other projects, like working out the logistics of a manned Mars mission or travelling to an asteroid, two of the goals President Barack Obama set out in his new space strategy, says NASA director Charles Bolden.
Although, the companies with which NASA has signed agreements to develop new spacecraft "are making some optimistic predictions" about when the new space vehicles will be ready, Neal said, "the truth is that they have still not been prepared".
As a nation, we are in "the final part of the second great era of space exploration," similar to what we went through in the 1970s after the last Apollo mission, the programme that succeeded in putting men on the moon, he added.
NASA took almost a decade to develop and launch the shuttle programme, and it was not until April 12, 1981 - 20 years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into space - that Columbia was sent into orbit, followed by Challenger (1983), Discovery (1984), Atlantis (1985) and Endeavour (1992).
Neal, whose museum will receive the Discovery to exhibit to the public in April 2012, said that the shuttles had been great spacecraft.