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After last shuttle flight, NASA will focus on 'deep space'

By Sally Holland, CNN Senior Producer
The Space Shuttle Atlantis will be the last of its kind sent to space by the U.S.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis will be the last of its kind sent to space by the U.S.
  • Last shuttle flight scheduled for next week
  • NASA says it is interested in "deep space" exploration
  • John Glenn unhappy with end of shuttle program

Washington (CNN) -- NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says that human space flight for America will not end with the retirement of the shuttle program. Instead, the space agency plans to refocus its efforts from lower-orbit vehicles to deeper space probes.

"Today NASA and the nation want to touch an asteroid and eventually send humans to Mars," he told a luncheon crowd at the National Press Club on Friday.

Bolden touted two new NASA programs that will eventually "open up the entire solar system to us."

A Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle will carry four astronauts for 21-day deep space missions, and will be able to land in the Pacific Ocean.

"It is designed to be much safer during ascent and entry than the shuttle," Bolden said.

NASA is near a decision and announcement on a new heavy-lift rocket space launch system.

Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for liftoff on July 8 for a 12-day mission to the International Space Station, marking the final flight for the shuttle program.

Last week, former astronaut John Glenn expressed his unhappiness with the end of the shuttle program.

Glenn called it "ridiculous" and says he has objected to the cancellation since President George W. Bush made the announcement back in 2004.

The next step for NASA

"I'm sorry to see things being cut back or diminished in any way, because I think the country needs research and innovation now more than ever before," Glenn said.

"Owning and operating lower-orbit transportation is not in the best interest of the nation," Bolden said of the shuttle program.

NASA hopes to sign contracts with several U.S. companies to provide the services that shuttles currently provide.

Astronaut Mark Kelly, who recently announced his retirement so that he could spend more time with recuperating wife Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, also attended Friday's luncheon.

Since his announcement, Kelly said that there have been rumors that he will run for political office. After joking that he would announce his intentions next week in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kelly said, "Gabby is the politician in the family. I'm the space guy and I see no reason to change that."

Giffords was seriously wounded during a January event in Tucson. Six people were killed.

"I love her very much, but I have to say I also love the space shuttle very much," Kelly said. "The space shuttle has been very good to this country. It is an incredible ship that is difficult to let go. In just one week from today, the space shuttle will rocket off the planet one last time. We will all be a little sad for a while."

CNN's Veronica Foreman contributed to this report.