STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning.

In both its triumphs and its disappointments, the space shuttle is the icon of the American space program. It's been that way for 30 years and will remain so for a few days more, until the end of the final shuttle mission.

INSKEEP: As that mission goes on, it's worth recalling how the shuttle became what it is. For better and for worse, it came together through a combination of engineering, cost cutting and politics.

Jeffrey Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the shuttle plans evolved.

Mr. JEFFREY HOFFMAN (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The shuttle was designed to be an extremely versatile spacecraft, which it has been. It's designed so that it could carry satellites into orbit, so that it could conduct scientific experiments. I mean, it has a wide range of possibilities. In order to be able to do all those things, certain compromises had to be made.

INSKEEP: I want to try to make a comparison here. When you say that they tried to design the shuttle to be versatile, it's almost as if you're telling me that the NASA engineers were told to design a car that is a sports car but with the carrying capacity of an SUV and the incredible energy efficiency of a hybrid and can also drive for half a million miles. I mean, basically a lot of demands were made on the same design.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Absolutely. And the result is there were some unfortunate compromises which definitely affected crew safety - I mean the fact that the shuttle was decreed from top down to be so safe that we didn't need a crew escape system, which all previous human spaceflight vehicles had had.

INSKEEP: If you had it to do all over again, if you were the one who was going to define what the shuttle would be today, how would you define the mission differently?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, I think one of the things we've learned from the shuttle is that in the future we don't need to put people on a flight whose primary purpose is to carry heavy cargo into space. This was a decision that was made after the Challenger disaster when, you know, we could've launched those satellites on expendable rockets.

So the original idea at the beginning of the shuttle was that expendable rockets would go away and the shuttle would do everything. And that included launching a lot of the very large military payloads. And that was really responsible for a lot of the design decisions.

I mean the fact that the shuttle is so large is because of that. If you look at the very original sketches that NASA had done for a space shuttle, it was much smaller, it had two little stubby wings on it. And that would've been much more of a people carrier. But that didn't meet the political and economic requirements of the time, and so we ended up with the shuttle that we have.

INSKEEP: So one of the things you might do differently today is not try so hard.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, we would separate the functionality. We would have a people carrier, which I think is what we will end up with for whichever of the private companies end up being successful with their attempts to build orbital vehicles. And then we'll launch the cargo on essentially cargo carrying rockets.

INSKEEP: How old are you, Jeff Hoffman?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I'm 66.

INSKEEP: Do you dream of going up one more time somehow?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, I'm not old enough, like John Glenn, to qualify on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: But...

INSKEEP: You're not old enough yet. I like that. That's a nice approach.

Mr. HOFFMAN: If somebody offered me the flight, I'd go in a heartbeat. I mean, I didn't stop flying because I was tired of it. I love spaceflight. I hope that the private sector will develop spaceflight to the point where many more people will have access to the experience that I've been fortunate enough to have.

I mean, the hope is that the private sector could actually maintain the infrastructure for low Earth orbit transportation, which NASA could then buy those services for their own astronauts and hopefully then have more resources to devote to deep space exploration, which is what I'd really like to see NASA doing rather than running a taxi service to low Earth orbit and back.

INSKEEP: Jeff Hoffman, thanks very much.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's been a pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's a former NASA astronaut.

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