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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Think back to the days when the space shuttle had yet to blast off for the first time. In 1977, NASA tested the Enterprise to prove the shuttle could fly and land.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Unidentified Man: For 33 miles, the shuttle will glide and fly alone about 9 nautical miles on north. It will try to make a big turn up by the Atchison and Topeka Railway and go...

NORRIS: How quaint now to imagine a shuttle simply gliding over railways. The U.S. space program has come so far, and today is bittersweet for the millions of people who have been inspired by it.

Adam Frank is one of them. He's been following the U.S. space program for decades. Frank is an astrophysicist and blogger for NPR, and he has these reflections on the day that the last space shuttle blasted off.

ADAM FRANK: Back in 1972, the library in my hometown wasn't very big, but its size didn't matter much to my 10-year-old sensibilities. That was the year I discovered their collection on the U.S. space program. Those few books where big enough to help change my life.

I spent the whole summer poring over images taken by NASA astronauts and space probes, and I decided one day, no matter what, I was going to be a scientist too.

Recently, I've been asking astronomers what inspired them as kids. The answers they give are all the same. From graduate students to full professors, their first scientific inspiration was the U.S. space program.

If the researchers are older than me, their eyes light up with memories of watching John Glenn stuffed into a tiny Mercury capsule getting blown into Earth orbit or seeing the first grainy close-up images of Mars beamed back from Mariner 4's 1965 flyby of the red planet. If they're younger, their voices quicken with memories of shuttle astronauts on heroically long spacewalks repairing the wounded Hubble Space Telescope. Always, it was the U.S. space program that lit a fire in their kid imaginations and launched them onto scientific trajectories.

This effect isn't limited to astronomers. Dig below the surface of many scientifically trained American adults and you'll find a bunch of kids who caught the science bug from the U.S. space program.

So what happens now? We're facing a years-long gap before NASA can put its own astronauts into space. Without the roar of space shuttle launches, are we facing an inspiration gap too? What's going to inspire the next generation of students to a life in science?

Reorienting a space program drifting from a lack of clear direction and a lack of funds is the right thing to do, so is supporting the fledgling private space industry. Real-world budget pressures might defer the truly thrilling goals -like seeing human beings clamor over the red hills of Mars - forever.

The loss of that dream would feel terrible to the 10-year-old I was all those years ago. More importantly, it would be a terrible loss for all the 10-year-olds dreaming now of exploration and science. And for a nation that needs science and scientists to survive, it would be the most terrible loss of all.

Inspiration is difficult to measure and even more difficult to price, but, as I have seen, it's the root of our excellence in science.

Right now, there is a frozen moon called Europa orbiting Jupiter. It has a surface of ice that is miles thick. Below that ice is a liquid ocean that goes even deeper. Who knows what unimagined ecosystems might thrive in those oceans? Someday, somebody who is inspired now as a kid is going to wander those frozen plains and drill down to explore those oceans. If we are smart in our choices, then those kids could still be our own.

NORRIS: Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. He also writes for the NPR blog "13.7: Cosmos and Culture."

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