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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Right now, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is orbiting Earth. It's the last mission for Atlantis and the last mission ever for the shuttle program. When that program began back in the early 1970s, America had just beaten the Soviets to the moon. NASA needed a new goal. And the challenge that captivated people was building a vehicle that might make space travel available - eventually - to all Americans.

We decided to pay a visit to Valerie Neal. She curates the shuttle program at the Smithsonian. And she remembers those early days when NASA scientists were trying to figure out how to build a vehicle that could go to space, then come back and land like a plane.

Ms. VALERIE NEAL (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): And if it could land like an airplane, then it could be reusable. It could fly again and again. And that was the big advance of the space shuttle, to have a reusable spacecraft, to be able to establish space flight as routine, maybe ultimately as routine as airline travel. That was the hope in the early 1970s.

KELLY: Neal is showing us around Space Hall at the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington. Summer is peak season. The hall is jammed with tourists and school groups, so much that Neal jokes there isn't actually much air or space today at the Air and Space Museum.

She points up to a giant cylinder, a full-scale test model of the Hubble telescope.

This is a huge - it looks like a huge, silver cylinder.

Ms. NEAL: It does. It has...

KELLY: Its' covered in tinfoil. Although I'm sure...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: ...it's a little more advanced than that. But that fits your own graphics.

Ms. NEAL: It's a little bit more elaborate than tinfoil. But yes, this is the size of a motor coach, or a long school bus.

KELLY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NEAL: And that fits into the payload bay of the shuttle. 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. The modules for this space station are this size. And so that's how we were able to build a space station the size of a football field by carrying up the pieces one at a time in the space shuttle.

KELLY: Over the last three decades, the shuttle carried parts for the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope. It has repaired satellites. It's carried out science and astronomy missions. And it's done it all with the fleet of just five ships.

Ms. NEAL: And no more than four in operation at any one time. Six shuttles were built. The first one never flew into space. That was Enterprise. At one time, there were four in service. When Challenger was lost, Endeavour was built to put four in service again. And then we ended up with three in service after Columbia was lost.

KELLY: Do you remember that day in 1986, when the first tragedy struck and the shuttle blew up just a few seconds after liftoff?

Ms. NEAL: I remember that day very well. I was working with NASA at the time, and we gathered in a conference room, as we always did, to watch the launches. And I remember just being absolutely stunned by what they saw on the screen. When I came here to the museum a few years later to work, I learned that people have brought mementos to the museum and actually created a little shrine here, a place for the public to express their grief and mourning. And that happened again after the Columbia tragedy. The public still thinks of spaceflight as space exploration, and the public thinks of the astronauts as heroes and pioneers. And when they were lost in those two tragedies, that all came to the fore again.

KELLY: Talk to me a little bit about the trajectory of the program. When the first shuttle went up, it was seen as just this tremendous manifestation of American power, of American might, you know, at the height of the Cold War.

Ms. NEAL: Right.

KELLY: You know, now in 2011, the Cold War long behind us, I think for a lot of Americans, it's - the space shuttle has become kind of routine. It serves as this, you know, ferry, transporting supplies up and down.

Ms. NEAL: Right.

KELLY: It doesn't speak to that notion of, you know, that they got of patriotism that people could latch onto and get excited about.

Ms. NEAL: Well, the hazard of proposing to make space flight routine is that if it becomes routine, then it becomes in the background. 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.

KELLY: Right.

Ms. NEAL: That they just don't have a concept of anything but the shuttle.

KELLY: Where do you think in history the shuttle will go down? It has achieved a lot. On the other hand, as I'm sure you know, it's been criticized for being staggeringly expensive, and also for never quite fulfilling that original vision of making space travel routine, certainly not for ordinary Americans.

Ms. NEAL: The space shuttle did not succeed in bringing down the cost of space flight, and that has been a disappointment all around. Despite the criticism for falling short of very optimistic goals, there has been a steadfast commitment to keeping Americans in space.

And 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. I think Americans are always interested in the next big thing.

KELLY: The next big project. And right that's still, watch this space.

Ms. NEAL: 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.

KELLY: For you, it must be a little bit - having watched the, been involved in the shuttle program all these years, it must be like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Ms. NEAL: It's personally poignant, because I started working with NASA in 1980, and the first shuttle launch was 1981. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEAL: And now that it's retiring, I'm wondering if that's a signal that I should retire, also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEAL: I still have a few more years of work ahead of me, though, to get all these new shuttle artifacts processed in. For a museum curator, that's certainly a once-in-a-career opportunity.

KELLY: We've been talking about an end of an era, the end of the space shuttle program here at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We're on the national Mall in downtown Washington, D.C.

Valerie Neal, who curates the shuttle program here, thanks so much.

Ms. NEAL: Thank you. It's a pleasure talking with you.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Over the weekend, the shuttle Atlantis linked up with the International Space Station. High over the Pacific Ocean, the two came together, and the Americans on the shuttle hugged those on the space station, astronauts from the U.S. Russia and Japan.

KELLY: This is the 46th time the shuttle has made a rendezvous with another spacecraft. And on this final hookup for the shuttle, NASA is considering what to do about a complication. They're considering whether Atlantis may need to fire its rockets to push the station away from some approaching space debris.

INSKEEP: It's a piece of an old Soviet military satellite. The space junk is a reminder of some past moment in spaceflight, which is exactly what Atlantis will be after its final mission is complete.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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