Shuttle Program Helped Advance Technology

On the eve of the space shuttle's penultimate flight, NPR's Melissa Block talks with Roger Launius, senior curator for space history at the Air and Space Museum, about what scientific benefits we've seen from the shuttle program.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Throngs are arriving on Florida's Atlantic Coast for the penultimate space shuttle launch tomorrow. Many hotels are sold out and President Obama is among those expected to attend.

The shuttle program is slated to end after the launch of Atlantis in June. Tomorrow is Shuttle Endeavour's final trip to space.

So we thought we'd look back at what we have learned from the shuttle program in its 30 years. The space shuttle is credited with helping to advance everything from medical technology to cars to firefighting.

Roger Launius is the Senior Curator for Space History at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum here in Washington. And he joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS (Senior Curator for Space History, Air and Space Museum): Thank you.

BLOCK: At the outset, back in 1981, what were the scientific goals of the shuttle program? What was it designed to accomplish?

Mr. LAUNIUS: It was really going to be one size fits all. It was going to be able to do human space flight and exploration. It was going to launch and deploy satellites, retrieve satellites and bring them home, do scientific experiments on board the spacecraft. It was going to be all things to all people.

BLOCK: And when you look back now, 30 years later, is there one main achievement that you can point to and say this was worth it?

Mr. LAUNIUS: If there's one thing, probably the most stupendous has been the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope, which really has created a world-class observatory that's been in operation now more than 20 years.

BLOCK: And those incredible images we've seen throughout outer space.

Mr. LAUNIUS: Absolutely.

BLOCK: What about some spinoff benefits, technology designed for the space shuttle that's then had alternative uses? I mentioned some of them in the introduction there, from medical technology on to vehicles. First of all in the field of health care, what has developed from the space shuttle?

Mr. LAUNIUS: Well, there's a lot of things that you can point to that have had a place in the development of biomedical knowledge. One of those, for instance, is research on things like osteoporosis. Astronauts have difficulties with bone loss during missions as short as a week or so.

So things like the harnesses that heart patients wear on a regular basis here, some of them go back in their early forms to the Apollo era, but they've really been developed and enhanced in the shuttle era.

BLOCK: What else might we not be thinking of that's evolved as an advance in science from the space shuttle?

Mr. LAUNIUS: One of the really important things, I believe, is the use of it as a platform for Earth observing. We have done that with astronaut photography and both video and still imagery from the shuttle. We have done it by deploying satellites that undertake this particular activity to observe the Earth and global climate change. It is a key component of what several federal agencies are looking at, and one of those has a component on the space shuttle.

BLOCK: There is this criticism, of course, that the space shuttle program was hugely expensive, a waste of money and with minimal benefits and a great deal of risk for the astronauts. And, of course, 14 astronauts did lose their lives in those two shuttle accidents. Critics say it just wasn't worth it. What do you think?

Mr. LAUNIUS: Well, that's a value judgment. How much is it worth to be able to engage in space exploration? How much is it worth to be able to build a space station?

We don't - and everybody can come up with their own different answers on that particular question. In my instance, I would say that it was worth every bit of that and more, not just for spinoff technologies that have arrived but new knowledge that has been created and incorporated into our lives in ways in which we now see the universe that we've never seen previously.

And I guess I would add one more thing, which is certainly kind of intangible, and that is the large international community that has rallied around the space shuttle and the space station as a means of undertaking peaceful activities. And that cooperative venture, I don't think we can minimize the importance of that.

BLOCK: Okay, Roger Launius, thanks for coming in.

Mr. LAUNIUS: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Roger Launius, a senior curator for space history at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C.

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