HOUSTON — With the close of the space shuttle program, many people worried that Johnson Space Center would become something of a ghost town, but work at the center has been refocused in other areas, including supporting the International Space Station and developing new spacecraft, officials said.

“We have a lot on our plate,” Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa said. “We’re operating the International Space Station 24 hours a day and we’re always mindful that we not only have people in space but we have to keep them safe and productive and working hard on the science and technology experiments that we have on the ISS.”

JSC also is involved in non-NASA spaceflight missions.

“We support the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, which will develop a U.S. capability to deliver both cargo and crew to low-Earth orbit and return,” the director said.

Aside from being an orbiting laboratory, the space station also figures largely in NASA’s next step of transporting humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

“ISS is part of our exploration program as well,” Ochoa said. “In addition to doing science experiments and technology development, we use it as a test bed for exploration and so we are trying to understand more about the human body and test out systems we might need for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.”

JSC is one of two space centers that are working on the next generation of spacecraft.

“We’re working on one of the two major building blocks of an exploration program and that is a spacecraft that can take people beyond low-Earth orbit, and more importantly, bring them back safely, because we’ll be returning through the atmosphere at much higher speeds,” Ochoa said.

“We’re developing Orion here at JSC in conjunction with Lockheed-Martin. At Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama, they are developing the other major piece, which is the heavy-lift launch vehicle that will be used to launch Orion.”

The first test flight of Orion is scheduled for next year.

Although JSC is NASA’s manned spaceflight center, workers there also have a hand in nonhuman space exploration.

“We have groups here that are supporting the Curiosity rover on Mars,” Ochoa said. “Folks here developed the algorithms for the trajectory, so we were part of that successful entry into the Martian atmosphere.

“We have astromaterials scientists here who are part of the overall team that works with the rover. That’s not a big part of what we do, but it is important to have that bridge between robotic and human exploration.”

That bridge is important because it directly ties in with future missions for humans.

“We want to make sure we take as much advantage as we can of robotic explorations and missions so that we learn more about the environment that humans will eventually face when we explore beyond low-Earth orbit,” Ochoa said.

“For example, there is a radiation detector on the Mars spacecraft that is giving us a better idea of what the radiation environment really is like on Mars and what we would need to plan for when we send humans there.”

NASA has also entered the 21st century when it comes to letting people know just what is going on at JSC.

“We try to get the word out about what we are doing on the International Space Station but we are doing it in more modern ways,” Ochoa said.

“We are taking advantage of social media. Our astronauts on the International Space Station use Twitter and they tweet from space. A lot of times they send down photographs of places on Earth that they are traveling over, or something from one of the experiments that they are doing. So that goes out to a wider variety of people than used to see them from NASA press releases.”

Astronauts also use other media.

“We do a lot of events from space that are educational, where astronauts talk to students around the world,” Ochoa said. “We have ham radio passes as they go over schools, which gives them a way to talk to astronauts aboard the space station.”

Astronauts aloft and on the ground also participate in Google hangouts.

“As new types of media are developed that are collaborative and bring people together, we are trying to use them here at NASA,” Ochoa said.

Contact Sports Editor John DeLapp at 409-683-5242 or john.delapp@galvnews.com.

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