NASA's Lessons From The Outer Limits The final launch of NASA's shuttle Atlantis is this Friday. When that mission ends, so will the shuttle program that produced scientific advances and stunning cosmic photos. To learn about the program's legacy and the future of space exploration, host Michel Martin speaks with Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of NOVA scienceNOW.
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NASA's Lessons From The Outer Limits

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NASA's Lessons From The Outer Limits

NASA's Lessons From The Outer Limits

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMAND CENTER) T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven...

MARTIN: NASA's space shuttle program launched 30 years ago in April of 1981. The Shuttle Columbia was part of the new wave of spacecraft meant to shuttle astronauts, cargo, research experiments and who knows what for the military, into orbit.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the shuttle has cleared the tower.

MARTIN: This first shuttle mission included NASA newcomer Robert Crippen.


ROBERT CRIPPEN: There was a lot of anticipation there. I didn't know exactly what to anticipate. I thought we might get a real shaking kind of a ride and it was like anything that a pilot would want to do. It was a nice, smooth push up into orbit. And to get a chance to look out at the Earth below you was something really special.

MARTIN: That mission lasted for two days, six hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds when STS-1, shorthand for Space Transportation System 1, landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two. One. Touchdown.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful. Beautiful.

MARTIN: That was, as we said, 1981. Today, though, we are closing in on the final launch of the shuttle program, the shuttle Atlantis, an STS-135. After the last flight of Shuttle Atlantis, the program is expected to end. And as the Economist magazine put it, the nation that won the space race by putting Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon with Apollo 11, will be without the ability to send astronauts into space. Any that do go will rent seats on Russian rockets.

We wanted to talk about NASA and the end of the shuttle program. We're going to have several conversations in the coming days with some pioneers, including the first African-American to walk in space and the first Muslim in space.

But we are going to start with a student of the heavens, someone who made use of the knowledge and goodwill that America's space shuttle program has been able to offer the world, Neil deGrasse Tyson. You've probably seen him hosting the public television series "NOVA Science Now." But his day job is as an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

And Neil deGrasse Tyson joins us now from New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: At least we think you're in New York. You could be...


TYSON: We are digitally connected and that's all that matters.

MARTIN: All right. Well, are you going to miss the shuttle program?

TYSON: I think we shouldn't lament the end of an era. We should lament the fact that another era isn't ready to take its place. No one lamented the end of the Mercury era because the Gemini capsule was on an adjacent launch pad and no one lamented the Gemini era coming to a close because the mighty Saturn V rocket was sitting right next door. So, I think the sadness comes about because there's nothing sitting right next door to take us to our next destination.

MARTIN: What have we learned from the shuttle program? What do you think have been the most significant achievements or knowledge gained by the shuttle program?

TYSON: Well, there's a lot. And it's many-fold. So politically, what's interesting is that the shuttle assembled the International Space Station. And the International Space Station is the largest international collaboration outside of the waging of war that civilizations have ever put forth. So it's a remarkable achievement not only geopolitically, but also as an engineering marvel. The thing in all of its splayed form is about the area of a football field.

MARTIN: So that's the, sort of the geopolitics, the international cooperation, which there aren't that many examples of, I'm afraid.

TYSON: No, there's not.

MARTIN: I mean, maybe the Olympics. Maybe, maybe not. But what about...

TYSON: Yeah, the Olympics. I'll give you the Olympics. But in terms of scale and cost, this transcends the Olympics. And so, yes, there's the geopolitics. There's the science. It's quite the marriage. In the guise of the Hubble Telescope, it was quite the marriage of the science program and the manned program.

Up until the Hubble Telescope, we would put a telescope in orbit and it was not expected to be serviced and it would run out of gyros or coolant or something would break and it would be de-orbited three years later. The Hubble Telescope, every three or four years, was serviced. Not only did you remove or replace the bad parts, you could upgrade the software. As the electronics revolution on Earth improved, so, too, did our orbiting telescope. So it's a remarkable marriage of the manned program and science. And beyond that, the engineering feat of constructing a space station in 0G, scads of construction insights were gleaned from having done this, so that if we ever want to build anything else anywhere else in space, we now know how to do it.

MARTIN: Well, that was going to be my next question, in that we are used to the sell for NASA and space exploration, apart from just the intrinsic interest in it and the intrinsic desire to know what's out there. The sell has always been with for civilian uses of the technology that developed for this purpose. Is there something that we can point to?

TYSON: Well, I think that's the quick and easy sell. You mean sell, as in s-e-l-l?

MARTIN: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

TYSON: The quick and easy one is there are these spinoffs. And, in fact, every couple of years, if not every year, NASA publishes a book called "Spinoffs," and you get to see all of the technologies influenced or pioneered by patents that were originally intended for space use. So sure, there are these spinoffs, but I don't think that's the best reason to do this. There are other sort of less crisply stated causes and effects of what it is to go into space. One of them is the effect it has on the mood of a nation.

When I say going into space, I don't mean just simply let's go back to orbit. I mean let's advance a space frontier, such as what we did in the '60s. Every next space mission was more ambitious than the previous one. When you do that, it brings an entire nation with it. It influenced our culture, our architecture, our food, the ambitions of students in school. It influenced our design. It became part of - it influenced clothing fashion, storytelling on television and in movies. And when you have an activity undertaken by a government that has that much influence you can't just say well, how does this affect my life?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

TYSON: What is, you know, tell me about the food they put on my plate. That's the wrong question to ask. And I can add to that the fact that we - yes, we went to the moon expecting to explore the moon. But what we also did was look back towards Earth. And in 1968, when Apollo 8 looked back to earth and photographed Earth rise over the lunar landscape, you can date the beginning of the modern era of the conservation movement to the publication of that photograph.

All of a sudden, we all looked at Earth not as we do in the classroom with all these political boundaries etched within it. We looked at Earth as this ball with just land, water and clouds. And all of a sudden, there was a oneness to it that no one thought to think before, where if you thought it, you didn't feel it, and if you felt it, you didn't act on it. And it took that photo to set an entire movement of - into motion on Earth to think about Earth as something to protect. How do you put a price tag on that? I don't know how.

MARTIN: I'm going to talk...

TYSON: And so...

MARTIN: No, I'm going to ask you to hold that thought for just a minute about what the legacy and the importance is of continuing that kind of initiative of exploring space. But the reason I want you to hold that thought is, first of all, just to jump in to say if you just joined us, we're talking ahead of what is expected to be the final launch of NASA's space shuttle program with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's the director of the Hayden Planetarium, well-known as a commentator on matters of science, and host of "NOVA scienceNOW."

But before we talk about the sort of future legacy, I did want to take a detour for a moment and talk about the two tragic episodes in the shuttle program. Of course, this is a moment that I think many people will remember. Here it is.


DAN RATHER: Space shuttle Challenger, lift off from a freezing-cold Florida to the cheers of the young students of the first-ever U.S. teacher astronaut. Moments later, full throttle and point of highest stress, a massive explosion. The cheering stops. The horror sinks in.

MARTIN: And, of course, for those who remember, this was the moment when the space shuttle Challenger - there was a disaster in 1986 when all seven crew members died, including the first member of the Teacher in Space Project, Christa McAuliffe. And then the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the minutes before it was to land at the end of its mission in 2003, also killing all those who were involved in the mission.

You know, we sometimes say that we learn as much from our failures as from our successes. Did we learn something important from these two tragic moments in the life of the shuttle program?

TYSON: I'll answer that in just a moment. Let me give a broader statement, that if you are on the frontier, you expect not everything to go perfectly. Failure is a fundamental part of what it is to advance a frontier. It just is, and anyone on the frontier knows this.

That being said, what we learned about the shuttle and the launch failure of Challenger is that here you have the crew sitting in this space plane adjacent to the fuel tanks. So if the fuel tank blows up, it takes you with it because you're sitting right next to it. If you're on top of it and the fuel tank blows up below you, you can use a rocket nozzle that can then pull you away to safety.

And so deep concerns were spread across NASA and all of us about the safety of the shuttle design. And the full shuttle design is with what we call the orbiter - that's what we all recognize as the shuttle - and three fuel tanks, the big orange one and the two solid rocket boosters on the side. So, henceforth, any newly designed spacecraft will not have astronauts adjacent to the fuel tank, and we learned that from the shuttle - the shuttle disaster.

MARTIN: Now talk a little bit more, if you would, about the conversation we were having just a couple of minutes ago about why this is so important, because I know that you've probably heard - well, I'm interested in two things. One is this has been said since the beginning of the space program, which is why do we spend money over there when we have all these issues down here, thing one.

And I'm also wondering about why you think - because you and I are contemporaries. There is not as much, at least sort of in the broader general public, as much interest - it doesn't seem to be as much interest in space. Is it because our technology is so focused on our life down here? You know, we've got so many amazing innovations down here - smartphones, tablet computers and things like that - that we're just so engaged with those, that we're looking kind of down and not up.

TYSON: The concern about whether there's an apathy towards our presence in space. I can tell you that apathy sets quickly when your journeys in space do not extend the frontier. If being on the shuttle means you're boldly going where hundreds have gone before, you are not extending a frontier. There's nothing for the press to talk about. If you go back to the Gemini era and into Apollo, every next mission had something new and different on it because it was extending a frontier.

The first space docking, the first spacewalk, the first time you leave low-Earth orbit, the first time you orbit the moon, the first time you land on the moon - each of these were separate missions. And so when you extend your vision one mission after a next, you've got something to talk about, you've got something to be excited about. You have the dangers that are ever-present on the frontier that excites the public. Why do you go to the circus and see the high wire act? Because it's dangerous. You can't do it. And there's special ones among us who have that ability to reach for that dangerous frontier. And I'm happy they're among us, otherwise we'd all still be living in the cave.

Now, about the cost of the space program, to a person - everyone who makes that very sentence: Why are we spending money up there and not down here? To a person, I ask them: How much money do you think we're spending up there? Tax dollars. Give me a percent. Oh, five percent, 10 percent, 20 percent of your tax dollars. I said no. It's 4/10ths of one penny. That's what we spend on NASA. All the space stations, space shuttles, the Hubble telescope, the Mars rovers, all the NASA centers, the astronauts, the headquarters, all of it, 4/10ths of one penny.

And I did this experiment. If you take a dollar, a paper dollar and cut it, cut off off of an edge four-tenths of one percent of it, you don't even get into the ink of that dollar.


TYSON: You're still in the boarder. So...

MARTIN: I see you've thought about this.

TYSON: I know. So if you want to say we're spending too much money up there. Spend it down here so that all of our problems will be solved, and you're going to look at that four-tenths of one percent and tap that as your source of monies to solve your problems, that's like saying, oh, I'm running out of space on my hard drive. Let me delete my email files. It's like, no. That's not going to make any difference. Go find your movie files. Go find your images. Go find the really fat stuff that's taking up space, then you can talk about comparing what you're spending money on for one cause versus another.

MARTIN: Where would you like the space program to go next? I understand that there's a lot of concern that the program is lacking direction. That's where we started our conversation, that the next, it was beat up. What would you like to see?

TYSON: Sure. And thanks to that question. I would - if I had the power to do so, I would first double NASA's budget. And yes, something else has to get less money. Sure. Go find it. All right. This is - our budget is three-point-whatever trillion dollars, all right. Double NASA's budget, then we can have an active, energetic mission statement that gets us out of low-Earth orbit - that's where the shuttle has been going - and put other destinations on the map. Bring the moon back in. That's a three-day round-trip - a three-day trip there. You can even do that in a news cycle.

Mars is much farther, so that, I want to remind ourselves how we can go outside of Earth before we take on the four-year-round-trip mission to Mars. There are asteroids worth studying. There are other places out there in space. By the way, we have adjacent planets. Venus, which has a runaway greenhouse effect with a carbon dioxide atmosphere, it's 900 degrees there. That's to our left. To our right is Mars. It once had running, liquid water in it. Today it's bone dry, 200 degrees below zero. Bad stuff happened on those planets. I want to know what that is.

If you're going to say only spend money to study Earth and you don't study anything else, you can't build a science on a subject of one. And the universe provides the repository of comparative places that you can then say, oh, that's how that works there, let me bring that back to Earth. So the value of it, especially for this minute cost, is incalculable. And I would add that it creates a mood, like I said, with regard to culture, to fashion, to architecture, to the vision statement that you have as a student in school who wants to grow up and be somebody.

But, you know, what is going to attract you? If I stand in front of you and say who wants to be an aerospace engineer so you can build an airplane that's 10 percent more fuel-efficient than the one your parents flew? Or who wants to be an aerospace engineer because we're going to Mars and I need an airplane that can fly in the rarefied atmosphere of that planet? These are two completely different vision statements, and one of them works and the other one doesn't if you're trying to attract students in the pipeline, in the educational pipeline.

MARTIN: Okay. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He's also host of "NOVA scienceNow" on PBS, and he was kind enough to join us from New York. Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for joining us.

TYSON: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And starting next week, TELL ME MORE will present a series of conversations with space pioneers. We'll hear from the first Hispanic woman astronaut, the first African-American to walk in space, as well as a prince of Saudi Arabia who was the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family in space. It's our series, Flying High, First in Their Class, and it launches Monday.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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