Ex-Astronaut Reflects; Fla. Space Coast Looks Ahead

Originally published on July 8, 2011 2:06 pm
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On a Friday morning, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

And we just witnessed the launch of the final Shuttle Atlantis into space. All went well. The shuttle is up there now, and we can talk to a couple of people on the ground.

And let's return to Nell Greenfieldboyce, who's at the Kennedy Space Center. And her guest, our guest, astronaut Shannon Walker.



Ms. SHANNON WALKER (Astronaut): Hello.

MONTAGNE: Welcome back to the show. Just - you know, what you're looking at there, in some ways, you know, it's a bit hard for us to understand what's going on although all is going on right now. Where would the shuttle be at right about now?

Ms. WALKER: Well, it is quite a bit downrange, and it's going 17,500 miles an hour at this point. So it is zooming across the surface of the Earth.

MONTAGNE: Now when we last left - and we spoke to you just a few minutes ago -we were talking about the fact that you had never been - actually flown on the shuttle, though you did serve as a flight controller in Houston for shuttle missions. You know, we've heard a lot about this, but how does the astronaut corps feel about the shuttle retiring?

Ms. WALKER: Well, there's mixed emotions. It is bittersweet. It is the end of an era. It is true, I did not fly on the fly on the shuttle, but I did fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket and spent six months on the International Space Station. And that is NASA's future right now, flying to the station with the Russians.

But most of us are looking forward. We know that if we want to go to other destinations beyond Earth, we need a new spacecraft to do it, and we're going to have to retire the shuttle in order to build new hardware.

MONTAGNE: Of course, there's going to be a hiatus, and it's not clear exactly what's going to happen next. But the aim - the target is deep space. Describe for us what that would be, and would you be - I mean, would be volunteering to go?

Ms. WALKER: Oh, I absolutely would be volunteering to go. NASA needs to decide, along with Congress, what our destination is going to be, whether it's going to be the moon, an asteroid or on to Mars. And we're building a heavy-lift vehicle to get us there and building the capsules that's going to be needed to carry the crew.

So work is progressing. There's a little bit of uncertainty as to what our destination's going to be. But once that's figured out, we'll be well on our way to go.

INSKEEP: So let's just review where we've gone so far, here. The shuttle was scheduled to take off at about 11:26 this morning - 11:26:40, to be precise. There was a lot of concern about weather this morning. In the end, the weather was judged to be just barely adequate, an acceptable risk, as it was phrased at one point by NASA. Then at the last moment, a technical glitch having to do with the launch tower itself held things up for a few moments.

But at approximately - we're being approximate, here - 11:29 Eastern in the morning, the shuttle went up. A couple minutes after that, the solid fuel rocket boosters dropped away. And at about 11:38, around nine minutes into the flight, the giant liquid-fuel tank dropped away, and the shuttle is now beginning its first orbit.

Joe Palca has been watching all of this. Is everything normal so far, Joe?

JOE PALCA: From everything I'm hearing, this is totally - what they say in NASA speak, nominal, which means nothing out of the ordinary. And that's the favorite term. It's going to take the space shuttle a couple of days to actually catch up to or align itself with the space station, which is its ultimate destination.

And it's going to spend about 10 days at the station, maybe nine, transferring its cargo, because it's taking up about 80,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the station.

INSKEEP: Nothing out of the ordinary and yet everything is out of the ordinary today, wouldn't you say, Renee?

MONTAGNE: Well, this of course, yes indeed. The last space shuttle to go up into orbit. And as we saw it launch just now, it's as beautiful as the first one, which I actually missed myself. But I've seen many pictures of it today. And it was, you know, it's truly sort of spectacular piece of visual.

Let's turn now, though, to - return to NPR's Greg Allen. He's in Titusville, Florida. He's near the Kennedy Space Center there. And he's surrounded this morning by hordes of people, people coming from all over, from outside the United States. And, Greg, you, just moments ago, offered a couple - a person or two to talk with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREG ALLEN: I don't have them now, Renee. They walked away.

MONTAGNE: Oh, you lost them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: It's only been a few minutes.

ALLEN: I did.

MONTAGNE: And what's to look at right at the moment? It's way up there in space.

ALLEN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us how people are - can you tell us what people are telling you? And then if you can tell us while you're walking...

ALLEN: Yeah. One thing I want to mention is, you know, this idea of bittersweet that you hear over and over again. People say that, but, you know, the interviews I've done up here with former workers and, of course, with this crowd here today, I mean, you basically have a crowd of enthusiasts.

And people are really looking ahead down here. I mean, you know, I think a lot of people think the shuttle could keep flying for another, you know, several years. But not if it means not going ahead with the next step.

And that's what I heard over and over again today from people who are here, saying: Yes, we want to go into deep space. We want to go to the heavy-lift rocket. And, yes, we think we can hand it off to the private sector to do this, you know, this back and forth into low Earth orbit - you know, that kind of thing.

I'm thinking that people down here along the Space Coast here in Florida, at least, are ready for the next step. And I think they're convinced that they will have a big role in space launch going forward, you know, from this day even with the retirement of the shuttle.

INSKEEP: Greg Allen, you mentioned they were enthusiasts, many of them there in Titusville, Florida. Earlier today, you brought us a conversation with a guy who brought his family to this final shuttle launch and had also attended the first shuttle launch 30 years ago, in April of 1981, and indicated to us that he has, in some ways, marked his life over the last 30 years shuttle launch by shuttle launch by shuttle launch. Is that normal for that crowd that gathered this morning in Titusville, Florida where you are?

ALLEN: Well, definitely, Steve. And now there are a lot of young people, a lot of kids here today. Their parents brought them along. You saw kids sleeping in their sleeping bags out here.

But I did talk to a fourth grade teacher who came down from, I think it was South Carolina. And he was talking about how he finds it difficult to get his kids in his fourth grade class interested in space the way that people of a certain older generation, myself - my generation included. We grew up with space, and we thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

Kids today, growing up with the shuttle, have been, got the sense that it's this space truck that goes back and forth, and the launches have not been attended with the same kind of excitement that, you know, the Apollo and the Mercury launches did back in the day.

There is a sense, I'm talking to some people here that, maybe with the next step that excitement will return about the next kind of move out into further out into space and with commercial launches.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much, Greg Allen in Titusville, Florida.

And, again, the key news here, the shuttle Atlantis has taken off. It is the end of the space program or rather the shuttle program after 30 years. Shuttle flight number 135 is on its way and all indications are that things are normal.

Chris Ferguson is the commander. He has logged more than 28 days in space. And the plan is for him to do a bit more than a dozen, about 13 days, I believe, on this mission, if all goes according to plan.

MONTAGNE: And an estimated 750,000 people gathered at Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch the Space Shuttle Atlantis blast off on its final mission. And I think - do we have a little bit of countdown tape, here?

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of launch)

Mr. ROB NAVIAS (NASA): T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five...

(Soundbite of engine)

Unidentified Man #2: All three engines up and burning.

Mr. NAVIAS: ...two, one, zero and lift off. The final liftoff of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.

MONTAGNE: Despite concerns over the weather, the shuttle reached low Earth orbit at just, let's see, it's been about 20 minutes ago, minutes ago.

Unidentified Man #3: This is mission control Houston, Atlantis safely in its preliminary orbit, following a flawless launch from the Kennedy Space Center, albeit about two and a half minutes late.

INSKEEP: And one final time for the start of a sentimental journey into history, that is the way that it was described by an announcer. So really, two different messages there. One announcer saying America will continue the dream, the other describing a sentimental journey into history.

We know for sure that one of those statements is true. This is the end of the dramatic program that has defined the American Space Program, the American space mission for 30 years - and a little more, really - since April 12, 1981.

Shuttle flight 135 is on the way and that mission is continuing. We do not know that dream of space, how precisely that is going to continue in the days, in the months, in the years and in the decades to come.

It is not clear what propulsion systems and what kinds of programs will replace the shuttle, which has been the backbone of the American Space Program for three decades.

We'll continue to bring you coverage of the Atlantis flight and the future on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.