NASA Prepares For Its Last Shuttle Mission

With the launch of NASA's last-ever shuttle mission set for Friday morning, NPR's Nell GreenfieldBoyce describes the scene at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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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.

Thirty years ago, April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Unidentified Man: T-minus, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4...

BLOCK: It was the first of 135 shuttle launches.

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Unidentified Man: We have liftoff of America's first space shuttle, and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

BLOCK: Atlantis is to be the last mission. It's scheduled to lift off tomorrow as the U.S. shuttle program comes to an end. In a moment, we'll hear from two astronauts about their shuttle memories.

First, we go to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. And, Nell, how are things look down there, Nell?

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, tomorrow, if it's like today, it's likely to be a little rainy. I'm looking at rain right now. From where I'm sitting I can see the shuttle off in the distance, which is a nice change of pace.

Earlier today, it was completely obscured by mist and fog and downpours. You know, the lawn around the big countdown clock is just covered with puddles earlier today. And soaked astronauts were walking around and reporters were running for cover. There was actually lighting near the launch pad, and NASA had to check the shuttle for damage.

BLOCK: That doesn't sound too promising, Nell, if they're planning tomorrow morning.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the bottom line is that even if the weather is nice enough to go swimming at the nearby beaches, it might not be good enough for NASA to launch. But the weather does look a little better over the weekend if they need those opportunities.

BLOCK: OK. And what do people been doing in the meantime as they get ready?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, NASA is taking advantage of having a couple thousand reporters sitting around waiting for the launch. So, they've been showing off their new stuff. There was a tour of a launch site of a private company called SpaceX that has a rocket and capsule that will soon launch cargo up to the space station.

There's a big party tent where NASA has set up a crew capsule. It looks like an Apollo-era capsule. It's this big white thing. And that's the agency's next spaceship it's building to venture beyond the space station, maybe to an asteroid.

So, NASA is trying to emphasize that the end of the shuttle is not the end of human space flight or of NASA.

BLOCK: The mood has to be quite intense now as people realize that this next launch is the last time they will see the shuttle blast off.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I've talked to people who've worked at Kennedy Space Center for 20, 30 years, and these folks have really developed a kind of relationship with the shuttle, a personal relationship. They have concerns about the coming layoffs.

But mostly, they feel like it's in the end of an era. The shuttle is something they've worked on for a long time and it's very important to them. And they're been proud of the shuttle program and what it's done.

So the word you hear a lot is bittersweet. You know, people are sad that it's ending, but they're proud of what they have done and they're trying to celebrate the legacy of the shuttle.

BLOCK: And, Nell, always a lot of people go to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch and I'm assuming that tomorrow or whenever the launch is, there will be a record crowd.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, that's what we've been hearing. People are saying, you know, a million people possible. But we'll see. If it's raining, that might not be the case.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce talking with us from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Nell, thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

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