Mixed Feelings over Discovery Launch

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Commentator Andrew Chaikin, is looking forward to the launch of the space shuttle Discovery and he's also waiting for the day the shuttle program ends because that means new space craft will be developed.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Science writer and commentator Andrew Chaikin will watch the shuttle launch with mixed feelings.

ANDREW CHAIKIN:

When Discovery finally heads for orbit, I will be holding my breath. Some of my anxiety will be personal. I know some of the astronauts on this crew and I won't be able to relax until they're safely back on Earth. But even then, I'll be waiting for the day when I won't have to see the shuttle fly again.

Ever since the first space shuttle flight in 1981, which I covered in my first assignment as a journalist, I've had mixed feelings about it. I've marvelled at the incredible engineering behind the shuttle and the thousands of dedicated people who've kept it flying. And over the years, I've seen shuttle astronauts do some spectacular things, like retrieving errant satellites and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. But the shuttle program seemed to be more about keeping NASA and its work force going than about exploration.

The wonderful feeling of discovery I got from NASA's robotic missions into the solar system was missing when I saw shuttle crews just going around the Earth like countless astronauts before them. And the whole justification for the shuttle's creation, to replace throwaway rockets, to lower the cost of getting into space and to make space flight routine never came to pass. And that made it even harder to see shuttle astronauts lose their lives.

My doubts didn't go away when NASA started using the shuttle to build the International Space Station. When I heard about the poor quality of much of its science research, the station seemed like more of the same. As astronaut Deke Slayton once called it, `An aerospace WPA.' It was frustrating. The cost of flying the shuttle and building the station was keeping NASA from doing real exploration; in my mind, the main reason to have a human space flight program at all.

After the Columbia tragedy, I was actually glad when NASA was directed to retire the shuttle by 2010. Now as thousands of people work to make Discovery's flight a success, I'm touched by their skill and their dedication. And I mean no disrespect to them or the brave men and women who will fly it, but I can't wait for the day when Discovery and her sister ships are in museums. Because it means we'll be creating new spaceships to go where the shuttle never could: back to the moon and to Mars and beyond. Ships that won't just keep NASA going, but going somewhere.

STAMBERG: Andrew Chaikin is author of the book, "A Man on the Moon: The Triumphant Story of the Apollo Space Program."

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