The Last Voyage Of Space Shuttle Discovery

Guest host Linda Wertheimer speaks with Capt. Mike Coats, director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, about the last voyage of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Coats was the first pilot of the Discovery.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

For 30 years we've watched the Space Shuttle Discovery take off from the Kennedy Space Center on the coast of Florida and ride a rocket into space. Three hundred and sixty-five days of flight - almost 150 million miles later -Discovery completed her final mission on Wednesday. NASA is winding down the 30-year-old shuttle program.

Mike Coats piloted Space Shuttle Discovery on her maiden voyage in 1984. He's now the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and he joins me from his office there. Welcome to our program.

Captain MIKE COATS (Director, Johnson Space Center): Thank you, Linda. It's a pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what do you remember about that first flight? What's your thing you think about when you think about it?

Capt. COATS: Well, when you first get into orbit, looking out the window and seeing the Earth from space, you just - you can't take your eyes away. I mean, we have a living, beautiful planet - spaceship Earth we call it here. And you see this living planet that's green and blue.

And then you see it going through the blackness of space, the utter void of space, and every astronaut and cosmonaut has the same reaction when they first get up there. It's you want to put your arms around this little planet that we all live on and protect it. And it's - everybody has that same feeling.

WERTHEIMER: Did you watch Discovery's last landing on Wednesday?

Capt. COATS: Oh, yes. Well, I wasn't down at the cape. I was here at the mission control center watching it. And it was pretty emotional, frankly. I was there for the launch a couple of weeks ago. And that was - I was kind of surprised how emotional I was actually watching the last launch of my bird. I feel a little protective since that's the only one I flew - all three of my missions. And, of course, flew the first leg.

I got to talk to several hundred of our engineers a few minutes after the landing in what we call the mission evaluation room. And I told them some of the stories from our first mission and got a little chocked up. I'm kind of surprised that it meant so much to me.

WERTHEIMER: Well, obviously the space shuttle program is winding down. Is that going to affect what you and your staff do at that Johnson Space Center?

Capt. COATS: Well, we are downsizing the workforce here fairly significantly. Of course, the shuttle program's coming to an end and we're still left with the international space station, of course.

But we're going to lose several thousand of our workforce here at the Johnson Space Center and the same at the Kennedy Space Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. A lot of folks have supported the shuttle for the last 30 years and that's going to come to an end now.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think the end of the shuttle era means?

Capt. COATS: We're going to miss the ability not only to take huge payloads to space - and we can carry 50,000-pound payloads to space. And, in fact, we have just finished assembly of the almost a million-pound space station that's up there right now. It couldn't have been assembled without the space shuttle.

And we're going to miss that kind of capability. I think we'll look back at the shuttle as kind of the golden era, if you will.

WERTHEIMER: I guess you can always check it out at the Smithsonian and take it up again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Capt. COAT: Hell, I'll tell you, Linda, it's a sobering thought to think that I flew the first flight of a spaceship that's now going into the museum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I think it means I'm approaching middle age perhaps.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I think it's a tribute to the program that it and you are still around.

Capt. COATS: Well, it's a pleasure for me. I mean, this has been a bittersweet flight, watching the last launch and landing of Discovery. It's sad to see it coming to an end, even though the Discovery was the workhorse of the fleet. And of course I work here at the Johnson Space Center with the people that operated during the flights. And it's just an amazing team that I think the country should be awfully proud of.

WERTHEIMER: Mike Coats is the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas, and the first pilot of the now-retired Space Shuttle Discovery.

Thank you so much for joining us.�

Capt. COATS: Thank you, Linda.

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