Opinion Page: So Long, Space Shuttle

The space shuttle Atlantis stands on the launch pad, prepared for a scheduled final launch on Friday that will mark the end of the shuttle program. NASA plans to shift its focus from lower-orbit vehicles to deeper-space probes. While some argue that the new focus will allow radically new space technologies to emerge, others warn that America will lose the best and brightest minds in the field and its leadership position in space exploration. Andrea Seabrook reads from a selection of editorials and op-eds and talks with callers about the end of shuttle program.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host: This Friday marks the end of an era. The last space shuttle flight is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA plans to shift focus from lower-orbit vehicles to deeper-space probes. Some argue that the new focus will allow radically new space technologies to emerge. Others warn that America will lose the best and brightest minds in the field and its leadership role in space exploration. Either way, the space shuttle program will come to an end with the flight of Atlantis.

What will we lose? What will we gain? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Now, we've already started getting emails, and, of course, bring in those calls. This one is from Joan Delberg(ph) in Raleigh. She writes: The space program is very expensive, and an argument can be made that in this economy we can't afford to pay for it anymore. The other thing I hear is that it is a waste of money because going to space is pretty useless.

However, scientific research is rarely useless. It may not contribute much in the way that the researchers intended, but it adds to the general accumulation of knowledge, and you never know what might become useful in the future to solve problems we haven't even imagined. The space program and the shuttle program, in particular, has contributed a lot to scientific knowledge and has led to many things that make a significant difference in our lives today. That from Joan Delberg in Raleigh, North Carolina.

And this is from Sarah in Iowa City. She says: Similar to the notion of buying a ticket to dream when buying a lottery ticket, the space shuttle program was the nation's ticket to dream. With the loss of exploration comes the inevitable loss of discovery, and discovery is what our nation is founded on. We will never be the Christopher Columbus of planet XYZ if we never set our spaceships to sail.

This is a really interesting idea, and we have a lot of thought from our nation's brain trust about this. This is - let me read a little bit from some people at NASA who are defending the bright future of NASA with or without manned spaceflight in the shuttle program. In this article, Abdalati and Robert Braun - Waleed Abdalati and Robert Braun, that's NASA's chief technologist, argued that NASA's future is still bright. He says it is in the human DNA to seek to survive, to thrive and explore. America's investments in space exploration, science and technology fuel discovery, allowing us to answer questions rooted at the very core of the human spirit.

What child has not gazed at the stars and planets in absolute wonder or imagined what it would be like to live on another planet, whether life exists beyond our own Earth? What will become of our home, the Earth, over time? NASA has been seeking and finding answers to these questions since its creation, and it will continue to do so for years to come. Here's another. This is - there are plenty of people who think that NASA should not be - or at least manned spaceflight should not be funded by taxpayer money, especially in a time when we're in such severe budget cuts.

This is from Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and aerospace consultant. He's the former associate administrator in charge of science for NASA. And this is in a piece in the Orlando Sentinel. He wrote that as spaceflight shuts down, the private sector will take over, and commercial space will soon take the lead. He writes: The dawning era of commercial American space efforts is giving rise to a far wider variety of new space systems and projects with refreshingly diverse markets and backers. The opportunity is there to create a Florida space economy that will be far more robust than any in the past 50 years. He then writes: These commercial space activities have the potential to create numerous manufacturing, launch and operations jobs in Florida, and also create engineering services, hotel and restaurant jobs, and possibly even new entertainment-themed attractions. They'll significantly blunt the blow of the shuttle's demise. Let's go to our phones. And remember, you can call us at 800-989-TALK. This is Peter in Michigan. Is it Okemos?

PETER (Caller): Okemos.

SEABROOK: Okemos, excuse me.

PETER: Yeah.

SEABROOK: How are you, Peter? Go ahead.

PETER: Happy Independence Day.

SEABROOK: Yes. Happy Independence Day.

PETER: I have to agree with the previous analyst that you had on, except unfortunately the blossoming of industry and energy and economy in Southern Florida is going to occur after a tremendous drain, which will extend over a number of years. And I think this is going to be one of the major legacies of the Obama administration, is the destruction of the concentration of brainpower in one place along with the engineering capabilities, the manufacturing capabilities and all that infrastructure that's presently in South Florida, which is going to disappear over a very short period of time as people migrate to better places where they can find employment.

And to get that all back together again, it's going to be a decade or more - terrible legacy to have us having to take a taxi ride with the Russians, who are probably not the most dependable chauffeurs.

SEABROOK: Well, Peter, that's interesting, because there are experts at NASA who are concerned that shutting down the shuttle program could lead to sort of a brain drain in the agency. Albert Wheelon, a former aerospace executive...

PETER: That's exactly my point, yeah.

SEABROOK: Yes. Albert Wheelon, a former aerospace executive and CIA official, told The New York Times: These good guys see the end coming and leave. You're left with the B students.

PETER: They're already going. I know a number of people in that area, in that industry, who are already gone.

SEABROOK: Interesting. And thank you so much for your call, Peter. And related to that is the fact that apparently the space shuttle program is the only spaceship that has the equipment necessary for the kinds of spacewalks that might be needed in an emergency situation on the International Space Station. I have here an op-ed from Christopher Kraft, the former director of NASA's manned spaceflight center. This is an op-ed from the New York Daily News with Transportation Management consultant Scott Spencer. They say that the space shuttle must be saved because if the International Space Station is disabled, we'll need sort of a rescue fleet.

They write: For more than 10 years, space crews from the United States, Russia and other countries have successfully lived and worked year-round in six-month shifts on the International Space Station, where they have conducted scientific research. In the coming years, that work will continue, but with a crucial safeguard missing - the space shuttle fleet that gives human beings a unique capability to fix the space station's guidance systems and rocket thrusters in the event of a terrible failure. The shuttles are now about to retire, all of them, with no true replacements. And it's extremely dangerous.

Loss of control of the space station would mean a catastrophic reentry into the Earth's atmosphere of the massive structure - that's of the International Space Station. That would the largest object ever placed in orbit around the Earth, measuring over three football fields long and weighing more than 400 tons. The tons of falling debris that would survive reentry would pose an unprecedented threat to populated areas around the world.

They go on saying that only the space shuttles have the vital airlocks and life-support supplies as well as the robotic arm that would be needed to move the hardware necessary for the required two-person spacewalking repair crews that could be needed in the event of a catastrophic problem on the International Space Station. Very interesting. We have an email here from David. He's an aerospace professional. And he wrote in to say: When JFK - John F. Kennedy, of course - committed the U.S. to the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth, he made it clear, within the context of his speech, that the goal of going to the moon was not an end in and of itself, but rather a means.

The desired end was a unified national approach to the advancement of the nation's technological prowess beyond those of the Soviet Union and others. Very interesting. So sort of going to the moon, building a program, is way more about the possibilities of the technology and the future advancement of the United States than of getting to the moon itself. Let's go back to the phones, 800-989-TALK. Dave in Tucson, Arizona. Go ahead.

DAVE (Caller): Yeah. Yes. How are you today?

SEABROOK: Hi.

DAVE: I'm one of these people who've been against the space program since day one. I've never liked it. It's cost us as taxpayers billions of dollars.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

DAVE: I think if they want to continue doing it, fine, but it needs to be, as someone else stated, done by private funds. You have to understand that when we send or when they send something into space, information gleaned from it is free to anybody that wants it. That's fine, except when some major company gets a hold of this information, uses it and then turns around and sells us back the products that they gleaned their information from for free, that kind of annoys me. They should - if they want this information, they should kick into the fund. You guys get to glean whatever you can from it, then you can go from there. I have no problems with the space program per se. I'm just tired of paying for it.

SEABROOK: Yeah. And I have to ask you, Dave, in this time of budget cutting...

DAVE: Well, I don't care about budget cutting. Even things were going good, it still came out of your and I - our pockets. And the end result was - I mean, NASA kind of believes that since programs like "Star Trek" and all that, everybody thinks one of these days they're just going to jump on a ship and go across, you know, across space in a few minutes and beam somewhere that - that's a movie's(ph) idea, you know, beamed places. That's not going to happen.

SEABROOK: Well, but imagine the...

DAVE: And they just sit there and they go, hey, hey, that's a - we're going to be able to do that someday, and NASA will let them do it.

SEABROOK: Well, imagine, though, the technology that the United States would gain by sending someone to Mars. Sounds like, sounds crazy. It is crazy. Perhaps that's why we should do it.

DAVE: You know, sending somebody to Mars, I don't care if they do it. That's not what I'm saying. I'm simply saying that we as taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for it. If they want to send people to Mars or anyplace else, what - to go to private industry, private company and say, here's what we want to do. If you guys want to see this done, glean the information you need, you know, that you want to learn from it, you pay for it, not the taxpayers. You pay for it.

SEABROOK: Thanks so much for your call, Dave. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Right along those lines, in The Washington Post yesterday, Eric Sterner, NASA's former associate deputy administrator for policy and planning, shared five myths about NASA. One of them is that NASA's research is useful only in space.

Sterner writes: Had a breast exam lately? Algorithms developed for the Hubble Space Telescope improved imaging processing in mammography. Been caught in a national - natural disaster? NASA advances in deployable radio antennae helped secure emergency communications after Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Fighting the war on terror? Miniaturized sensors that sniff the air for traces of life on other planets led to the development of easy-to-use handheld devices to detect explosives and chemical agents on this planet.

NASA technology often finds a way back to Earth. Sterner also writes that NASA isn't as expensive as people think and that in 2010, NASA budget matched the amount Americans spent annually on cat food. Let's go back to the phones. This is Mark in Milton, Florida. Hi, Mark. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK (Caller): Thank you. Yeah, our national pride - I remember getting up and getting my two young brothers up in '69 to watch the first men land on the moon. And I've seen the shuttle when I was stationed in Florida, went down and watched the shuttle take off. And it just - on TV, it just doesn't do it justice. I mean, you're miles away, and it's so huge, the sound reverberates in your chest. And it's a great pride.

To be reduced to the point where we have to pay the Russians to go to space in an obsolete Soyuz mission and that NASA's number one mission, according to the president now, is to reinforce Arab pride and their contributions to science is humiliating.

SEABROOK: Humiliating. Thank you for your call, Mark. I want to read just a little bit more from what Waleed Abdalati and Robert Braun, both of NASA, wrote in the Baltimore Sun. And the end of their article, they write: The 21st century will be won by those who innovate, seek scientific breakthroughs and develop new technologies. NASA is a place that stirs American innovation, a place where America continues to reach for new heights and push the frontiers of science and technology.

By continuing to take on grand challenges in human spaceflight and science, NASA will catalyze America's innovation engine and play a significant role in America's economic recovery by taking humans to places never before visited, by developing technologies that will serve society in broad ways, some that we can't yet anticipate, and by empowering us to understand our world, our solar system and our place in the universe. NASA will continue to serve our nation well into the future. They write: The future is waiting. It's time to claim it.

And I have an email here from Kazoo(ph) in San Francisco. They write: CAT scans, MRI technology, kidney dialysis machines, cordless power tools and appliances, water purification techniques and integrated circuits are some of the many inventions that can be traced back to the research for the original Apollo flights. Imagine our world now without these devices. By giving up space flight, imagine what future inventions may never be invented.

It's important, by the way, to remember that we are not, the NASA program is not going away, just the shuttle program at this point. And let's have a last call here from Donna - Donnie(ph). Donnie, go ahead. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DONNIE (Caller): Hi. I'm thinking that we're missing the throughline here of all of the experience that the astronauts, you know, in the past have given us, you know, the - I'm a little confused about this because I'm emotional about it. We're doing a documentary and we're traveling to the launch. We've just come from NASA, and we've spoken to a lot of people there who are losing their jobs and some who are moving on to other jobs.

But I think the shuttle is handicapping - losing the shuttle is handicapping the program in a big way. And they're putting on a happy face about it, but it's going to make it difficult for them to do their jobs the way they have been doing in the past.

SEABROOK: Thank you, Donnie, so much for your call. And we'll be waiting for that documentary as it goes forward. Thank you all today for your calls and emails. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

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