SCOTT SIMON, host:
For many Americans a space mission just doesn't take off until Pat Duggins says it has.
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PAT DUGGINS: The light coming from the south of rocket boosters resembled a quick sunrise that lit up the Kennedy Space Center. It was the first night-time launch for the shuttle program since the fall of 2002.
SIMON: Pat is a senior news analyst at WMFE in Orlando. And for many years, he's covered the space program for all of the programs heard here on NPR News. Certainly, many listeners to this program recall that Saturday morning, February 1, 2003, when Pat Duggins was a sharp and steady voice, bringing us the matchless benefit of his experience when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over the skies of Texas.
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DUGGINS: We, as you mentioned earlier, we have unconfirmed reports of the shuttle breaking up. There's a talk of possible problems with one of the hydraulic units on the space craft. But whatever it is, for those of us here at the Kennedy Space Center, the double sonic booms that usually herald the shuttle's arrival did not occur, the countdown clock ticked to zero, there was no sign of Columbia, and then, obviously, something had gone tragically wrong.
SIMON: The space shuttle program is coming to an end, and Pat Duggins has written a book "Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program," from the University Press of Florida. Pat Duggins joins us in our studio. So good to see you here.
DUGGINS: Same here, Scott.
SIMON: Now, I was fascinated in your book that there was some feeling among some of the space program from the first that the shuttle may have been a flawed craft because it didn't have an escape mechanism.
DUGGINS: Most definitely. Most poignantly probably came from Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and later command the shuttle because she was on a mission with cosmonaut Vladimir Titov.
DUGGINS: And he was in a Soyus vehicle; that's how the Russians get into space. And they had a fire at the launch pad. And so the escape rocket fired on that Soyus, popped the vehicle away, it hatched open, Vladimir and his co-pilot just basically walked out, and the American astronauts are sitting thinking, well, why don't we have something like that?
SIMON: Yeah, why not? Are there practical reasons why that was never included?
DUGGINS: Well, the first four flights of the shuttle included ejector seats -kind of like in a fighter jet. But then after that, the shuttle's crew cabin has two floors. So in other words, if you have people up on top, even if they had ejector seats and they got out, what about the four folks that are on the lower deck? I mean, there's no escape for them.
So, basically, NASA's solution to that after the Challenger accident was to create sort of NASA's version of the bat pole, if you remember the Adam West series back in the '60s. If there's a problem, you pop the hatch, you extend this long pole outside of the shuttle, and then one at a time, each of the astronauts attaches a strap to this pole with the big D-ring, and they slide down in that heavy bulky suit they wear - they've got, like, parachutes and escape rafts and all that sort of stuff. But engineers will tell you, maybe two minutes of safety during the launch, two minutes of safety as you're coming in, and so for Challenger, for Columbia, no way it would have helped out.
SIMON: There are some sections of your book that kind of revive the debate between people who say you have to have men and women man the spaceflight to give it poignance, to give it meaning. And then those who say, look, who are we kidding? This can be done better, cheaper, more effectively by machines in this day and age. And I wonder if you could take us through some of the reasoning because it strikes me that, as opposed to when the shuttle program began or certainly when Mercury and Apollo began, as a species, we're getting more reconciled to doing things by machine.
DUGGINS: Nowadays, you can look at the Mars rovers, which are just doing amazing things out on the surface of Mars. But then again, NASA will immediately bounce back and say, well, wait a minute, look what happened to the Hubble Space Telescope. In other words, you had the main mirror that was misground, so when they opened up the big eye, you got basically nothing. And so to fix that, they had to train astronauts, give them, well, a component about the size of a baby grand piano that for a want of a better term is a high-tech set of contact lenses, and you slap it in there, and all of a sudden, ta-da, Hubble's back, but machines couldn't do that.
SIMON: Do you see a clear goal ahead for the space program? I - because, of course, there's the imminent return to the moon or not so imminent, but it's in the plans, and, certainly, there's a lot of interest in going to Mars, but on the other hand, it's hard to see a specific course.
DUGGINS: Yes, sort of. Before, with Apollo - there were two missions basically — one to beat the Russians, the other one to do all this grandiose things. But the only one that anybody was told about was let's beat the Russians. So that's why after Apollo 11, Apollo kind of went away.
With the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will be the vehicle that will take over for the shuttle - what the White House has in mind is an incremental step-by-step progression from Earth service theo space station - the International Space Station move on to the moon, use that as a test bed, and then after that, the more grandiose and perhaps unreachable goal of going on to Mars. Because if you send people to Mars, I mean, you don't want to do that without really having confidence in your vehicle.
DUGGINS: I mean, you're on your own. There's a ride at Epcot Center in Orlando that supposedly recreates a trip to Mars. And there's mission control saying, turn left, turn right, do this, do this. It's 10 minutes for a radio transmission to go from Earth to Mars, and then for the astronauts to respond 10 minutes before their answer gets back to Earth. So if there's an emergency, a metal breakdown or anything, chances are pretty good it's going to be over for Houston will even know anything happened.
SIMON: You've covered a couple of tragedies in space now. Do the American people have an unrealistic expectation that you can explore the stars and not lose lives?
DUGGINS: Yes. And I think that, well, both accidents were met with reactions -well, from people that I spoke to - the shuttle can't blow up, the shuttle can't burn up. I mean, to them, it's still routine enough that it's not the spectacular daredevil kind of flights that happened back during Project Apollo or Gemini or Mercury or anything like that. But, I think, as we go along, even with the new vehicle, which does have an escape rocket by the way - the Orion doesn't have an escape rocket - there are going to be lives lost. And I think that, ultimately, the message anyone should take home from the book is, okay, we're going to spend billions of dollars and lose 14 astronauts, shouldn't it be for something?
SIMON: Do you ever dream of going to the moon, space travel?
DUGGINS: My wife has to put a knife to my back to get me on the log flume ride at Disney World. But after covering it for, like, 20 years, I think it would be kind of like, you know, silly of me to sit here and written stories and done all of this about other human beings taking that risk and saying, no. But nobody's asked, so, fortunately, I can simply say, why, of course, I'd go. And then, as soon as someone says, yes, then, oh, I would be out the door.
SIMON: Pat Duggins. His new book is "Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program."
So good to have you with us.
DUGGINS: Thank you, Scott.
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SIMON: By the way, you can read an excerpt from Pat's book on our Web site at npr.org.