With the space shuttle down to its final mission, items from the NASA program are destined to become exhibits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The person curating those artifacts will be Valerie Neal, who first worked with NASA in 1980.
Neal tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly that the exhibit has a lot to say about how the shuttles were used. Walking through the museum, she stops in its large hall, near a full-scale test version of the Hubble space telescope.
"This is the size of a motor coach, or a long school bus — and that fits into the payload bay of the shuttle," she says. "And that helps you understand that fundamentally the space shuttle is a truck. It's a space truck; it's a vehicle for carrying big things into space."
Since around 2000, the shuttles have mostly operated as ferries to the International Space Station, bringing astronauts and equipment into space. And over time, the launch of a space shuttle took on an air of something expected, a routine part of NASA operations. Neal says that in many ways, that perception reflects the success of the program.
"The hazard of proposing to make space flight routine is that if it becomes routine, then it becomes in the background," Neal says. "And over the course of 30 years, most of the American population alive now knows no other kind of space flight. We find that children think that the shuttle went to the moon. They just don't have a concept of anything but the shuttle."
Still, Neal acknowledges that the venerable space vehicle did not meet all of the lofty expectations that surrounded its first launch, especially when it comes to the space program's budget.
"The space shuttle did not succeed in bringing down the cost of space flight, and that has been a disappointment all around," she says.
That doesn't mean that NASA or the U.S. government has given up on putting Americans in space, she says. But Neal admits that there is some uncertainty around the program's direction right now.
"I think the unsettling thing right now is that it's not clear what the continuing commitment is, or what the new program will be," she says. "I think Americans are always interested in the next big thing, and we don't know what that is. We want to know: What's the next destination; how are we going to get there; how long will it take; how much will it cost? And it's going to be a few years before that settles out."
As the shuttle era ends, Neal says that in many ways, her professional life has mirrored the space vehicle.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Artifacts from the space shuttle program, and the final mission by Atlantis, are destined for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Here, Atlantis blasts off from Kennedy Space Center for its last mission.
Artifacts from the space shuttle program, and the final mission by Atlantis, are destined for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Here, Atlantis blasts off from Kennedy Space Center for its last mission. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
"I started working with NASA in 1980, and the first shuttle launch was 1981," she says. "I worked on about seven missions in the 1980s. I worked a little bit with astronaut training. I had this very charmed existence, that my entire career parallels the space shuttle's career. And now that it's retiring, I'm wondering if that's a signal that I should retire, also."
But first, Neal says, she'll be working to get a wealth of shuttle artifacts into the museum's collection — "everything from small food samples and crew clothing to the space shuttle Discovery itself," she says.
"And for a museum curator, that's certainly a once-in-a-career opportunity."