The only Iowa State University graduate to go into space says his career path is now rather uncertain, along with the future of the U.S. Space program. Astronaut Clay Anderson was part of the shuttle Discovery crew that spent 15 days in space this April, his second trip into orbit.

Now, only two planned shuttle missions remain before America’s aging fleet of space vehicles is retired, with no replacement ships in the wings. “It is a little bit bittersweet because it’s the end of an era,” Anderson says. “It’s unfortunate, but some people are just really now starting to take notice since it’s going away. You know how it is, whenever people take everything for granted until someone tries to take it away and then it becomes foremost in their minds.”

In 2007, Anderson spent five months living aboard the International Space Station, his first assignment in space. He turned 51 earlier this year and Anderson says he’s uncertain if he’ll ever again see the bright glow of stars from an orbiting spacecraft. “If I agreed to fly on the International Space Station again, I might have a shot to get back to orbit,” Anderson says. “With my age, to wait for the next program to take me into space, I’ll be pretty old. In order to go back to the ISS, we’re now launching on Russian rockets and the training template is about two-and-a-half to three years long, so my family and I haven’t decided if we want Dad to be away from home that much.”

Anderson and his wife have two children and the oldest is ready to enter high school. President George W. Bush energized NASA and the space program when he declared during his administration that the U-S was headed back to the Moon and on to Mars. President Obama has radically scaled back all manned mission plans and cancelled Project Constellation, the proposed new fleet of rocketships that were to return us to the Moon and beyond.

Anderson says both presidents’ plans had a “deficiency,” in that they’re creating a gap when the U.S. no longer has the ability to launch astronauts into orbit. For the foreseeable future, NASA will be paying the Russians millions of dollars per launch to send astronauts to the space station aboard Soyuz rockets.

Anderson says, “What I hope we do, is we figure out that we can and need to put humans back in space on American vehicles and really get that going so that we can minimize the gap that we’ve created.” He says he remains optimistic the next U.S. space project will propel us beyond low-Earth orbit, whether that means a bold new mission to the Moon, to Mars or to an asteroid. Anderson says he’s spending a lot of time, traveling the country and talking to school kids, working to inspire them to look toward the stars.

“I’m very hopeful that the generation that’s in elementary and junior high today will be leaders of the space program of tomorrow and that they’ll keep it in the forefront of their imaginations,” Anderson says. “That’s going to be hard to do, you know? When kids are bombarded with all sorts of other stimuli and we won’t have any American rockets launching and I’m really hopeful that, somehow, we keep their focus. I don’t want it to be out of sight, out of mind.” Anderson’s a native of Ashland, Nebraska, and now lives in Houston, Texas. He earned a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State University in 1983.

Hear Matt Kelley’s full interview with Clayton Anderson here: Anderson interview 6:02 MP3