So the shuttle was pretty much just to help build the ISS and launch a few objects right?
So with them wanting to test out the Orion program (is it still going on?) How will the payload stuff work out?
Over thirty years of flight we've launched quite a few payloads! Numerous communications satellites, multiple science laboratory missions, multiple dockings with the Mir space station, exploration missions like Magellan to Venus, Galileo to Jupiter, the Ulysses Solar mission, the Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and, of course, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). I also feel obligated to say that assembly of the ISS was no trivial matter either -- we've been working very hard to get all the pieces into space, while simultaneously coordinating efforts between multiple International partners. From my perspective, the ISS is an enormous accomplishment.
The Orion Program is definitely still going on. http://www.nasa.gov ...n/systems/mpcv/index.html
The Orion spacecraft is being designed as an exploration vehicle - not as a means for delivering payloads to orbit. That responsibility will fall to other launch vehicles -- provided by NASA and/or commercial launch services.
I do remember the HST being the highest for the shuttle to get to and if I remember right the optics were pretty messed up from the get-go but they worked around it.
"Pretty messed up" is a relative term. I respectfully encourage you, and others, to take the more "sensational" articles you read with a grain of salt. Admittedly, the HST primary mirror is imperfect -- it was ground slightly (2.2 microns) "too flat," creating distorted images with spherical aberration effects. But please keep in mind that even with the uncorrected optics, HST was still delivering images that were better than ground-based telescopes. In addition, it's important to realize that there are multiple science instruments incorporated into HST, and not all of them were impacted by the mirror defect. During the STS-61 mission, we successfully installed a "corrective optics" instrument in the HST aft shroud which brought the images back into the desired performance range. Today, HST is in great shape -- actually better than the day it was launched, with improved computers, new solar arrays, and upgraded science collection instruments. HST is the "crown jewel" of NASA's astronomy program.
The current plans, IIRC, are basically to use SRBs (based on the ones in the Shuttle program) and engines based on the shuttle main engines for both Orion (the passenger vehicle) and the heavy cargo lifters that will be needed to support future, more ambitious, plans for space, including manned missions to other planets. In fact, NASA pulled the real shuttle engines from Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis as part of prepping them for the museums.
Jon, the concept you describe of using Shuttle-derived technology (e.g. SRBs, ETs, RS-25 engines, etc.) for our "next" Program is all correct - that is exactly where we were headed with the recently-cancelled Constellation Program. But a lot of things are changing these days and I cannot say with confidence what will actually happen in the future. My personal opinion is that we will use shuttle-derived components, but we're in a transition phase right now.
My understanding is the RS-25s pulled from STS will be flown on the first SLS flights, and will perish with the core stage on re-enty.
Yes, that was the plan Mike -- but as I stated above, I'm not placing any bets on anything just yet...
One question, Is the Orion space vehicle any bigger than the Apollo capsules? Can astronauts even "stand up" while in space if they were confined to the command module?
A mission to Mars would be a very dangerous one, especially if you think about solar activity.
The current Orion capsule design will accommodate 4 crewmembers so, yes, it's a bit bigger than Apollo -- but "standing up" isn't really a design driver for an orbital (zero-g) vehicle. Current plans are to use Orion for long transit missions in micro-gravity environments, and a separate "lander" of some sort would be used to explore terrestrial surfaces such as the moon, Mars, or an asteroid. The crew will definitely be able to "stand" in whatever landing vehicle is designed.
You are correct that Solar Proton Events and Galactic Cosmic Radiation are significant hazards that we must shield against -- this is a huge challenge to long duration missions in deep space (outside low earth orbit).