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The Last Shuttle Launch And The Future Of Space Exploration

As NASA’s final shuttle launch approaches, we look at America’s future in the final frontier.

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (AP)

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (AP)

America’s last space shuttle is on the launch pad.

Sometime in the next few days, weather permitting, it will go up. And will come down. And that will be it.

No more space shuttles.

In fact, no more manned American space flight period until something else comes along. We’ll be renting from the Russians. Watching the Chinese. Betting on a new wave of commercial spacecraft.

Talking about deep space, but not going there yet.

So, is the Space Age over? For us? For everybody? Was that just a dream?

This hour On Point: the last shuttle, and the future of humans in space.

-Tom Ashbrook


Irene Klotz, NASA reporter for Reuters

Andrew Chaikin, science journalist and space historian. He’s the author of several books and articles covering NASA’s past and possible future, such as, “Voices from the Moon” and “A Passion for Mars”.

George Abbey, senior fellow in space policy at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston. He’s also the former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Jeff Hoffman, former NASA astronaut. Currently he’s a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

From Tom’s Reading List:


This hour on the show, we heard the theme from the 1966 Star Trek TV series by Alexander Courage

Here’s a briefing from NASA on the last shuttle flight.


And here’s a video from NASA about the first launch.


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  • Michiganjf

    If you think we’ll ever get a shot at another planet other than Earth, think again.

    The scrapping of the shuttle program is just the beginning…

    Ventures into space will become more prohibitively expensive as energy and materials costs rise ever faster, and meanwhile our planet is reaching more and more tipping points which demand that all economic and political focus be confined to terrestrial issues… and this inevitability becomes more entrenched each successive year.

    Add to this dilemma the fact that space exploration has and will always face eventual setbacks and failures… considering the escalating expense of space ventures in the future, desperate peoples and governments will not likely be tolerant of money that evaporates on the launch pad, or perhaps on, say, a failed experimental lunar colony. If you recall how much the Challenger accident set back U.S. space exploration in the 1980s and 90s, you can likely multiply that set-back factor by 100 or more for future failures in any coming ambitious programs.

    The bottom line:

    Space will always be a wonderful dream for human potential, but we had better start taking care of the planet we have, since creating any future for humanity in space is unfortunately extremely unlikely.

    • Yar

      It is a good thing to learn to live inside our environment before we populate another world.

    • nj

      [[ Space will always be a wonderful dream for human potential, but we had better start taking care of the planet we have, since creating any future for humanity in space is unfortunately extremely unlikely. ]]
      Any future for humanity in space?

      Where, exactly, do you think we are?

    • Michiganjf

      By the way, this same argument applies to improving infrastructure in our country NOW, and taking on ambitious, expensive projects that we’ll need in the future, such as high-speed rail across the entire U.S.

      Escalating materials and energy costs will also make certain terrestrial projects more prohibitively expensive in the future.

      This is the Bush era’s real crime against our country… they frivolously traded our last “painless” chance (while we were flush with cash) to repair aging and inadequate infrastructure… traded that last chance away, opting instead for unnecessary tax cuts to the wealthiest and corporations, a massive phamaceutical boondoggle, and the fiasco in Iraq.

      Now our future is in ever greater doubt as no government entity has the revenue needed to improve the failing infrastructure that American business requires in order to compete.

      • Michiganjf

        … globally, that is.

  • Anonymous

    I’d support funding the B Ark.

  • Cory

    Easy.  The future of space travel and exploration is in the private, for-profit realm.  Instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, you’ll be able to idolize a billionaire venture capitalist who is stroking his ego by launching a vehicle into space.  Naming rights to the first colony on another planet should fetch a pretty penny.  Vive le capitalism!!!

    • Chris B

      Meaning it’s basically dead, or at least in suspended animation for the next couple of centuries.  No one has yet come up with anything remotely profitable in spaceflight, despite pie in the sky
      (no pun intended) visions of mining the asteroids and making exotic biotech compounds.  The billionaire oriented suborbital trips are simply a novelty item an don’t really warrant serious consideration.  Colonies on other planets?  Forget that one altogether.

    • Michiganjf

      Other than perhaps some low-earth orbit tourism, the idea that Venture captal will take us out into space is a ridiculous notion, and here’s the VERY SIMPLE reason why:

      If resources ever become SOOO expensive on Earth that mining them OFF EARTH becomes financially sensible, then we’re already talikng about an Earth that has become SOOO screwed with scarce resources that Capitalism as we know it will long have ceased to exist…

      … not to mention the astronomical resource costs at that point will also already have made any space ventures absolutely unviable.

  • Anonymous

    Me thinks deep space exploration is probably over for the U.S.  We simply have too many terrestrial issues to address that will consume our shrinking wealth and limited attention spans.

    Shallow space exploration will probably belong to commercial operators.  But who cares, really?  Why would I spend my hard-earned money to take a quick hop into space with that Virgin Atlantic guy?  I mean, it’s like a roller coaster ride for well-heeled adults.

    China might go deep if they see commercial potential and/or if it’s the exclamation point on their declaration of financial and technological superiority over the West.  And keep in mind, they deploy technology vastly more quickly and inexpensively than the U.S., since they are far less risk averse when it comes to their citizens, so for them it could make sense.  It would sure as hell be demoralizing for engineers here in the U.S., that’s for certain.

    • Cory

      Good stuff!

  • Michael

    Could we view ourselves as Spain after it’s initial discovery of the Americas? We had it “first” but it’s slowly becoming private ventures and other state sponsored missions that takes over?

    • Cory

      And within a few hundred years Spain was a feeble laughing stock.

      • Michiganjf

        Spain’s demise was most definitively marked by the destruction of the Spanish Armada in a storm that nature whipped up around 1588.

        Spain might have conquered England, which is why the Armada was there. World history would look quite different had that natural event not occurred, and we’d likely all be speaking Spanish today rather than English… Spain’s conquest of the Americas would likely have continued to pay off quite nicely, and English Privateers would have probably been kept in check quite easily, even without a successful conquest of England.

        The U.S., in contrast, is suffering from its own stupidity, greed, and short-sightedness, which is far more contemptible than having a natural disaster lead to your demise.

  • RM Guy

    Besides Tang and freeze-dried strawberries, what have we gotten out of this program?  Interesting color pictures and amazing adventure trips for about 10 dozen adults, at about $10B per copy.

    • Rex

      Oh, just a few things listed here:
      Not to mention Temper Foam Technology used in those beds

      • Anonymous

        Oh, snap!

    • Cory

      Nothing at all.  The entire space program has been a colossal waste of time and resources.  We never should have left our own atmosphere.  Can’t possibly argue against your logic.

    • Anonymous

      how many times does it take you to repeat yourself before you believe it?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Meeker/100000217975952 Bill Meeker

        I’d say 3 does it for most folks!  After that, it doesn’t matter what you read or hear.  ‘We want the facts to fit the preconceptions.  When they don’t, it is easier to ignore the facts than to change the preconceptions.’ James West 

  • seb

    In times of great possible restrictions and deadlocks,shouldn’t the future of space be a priority instead of a declining venture !!
    The overall gridlock might mean that it is time for us to take a closer look at the sky and finally give a try to the unknown. We might be surprise by what or who we might find/meet…

  • Gerald Fnord

    Societies without “outsides” stagnate—look at China, Korea, and Japan after each (separately) decided that the outside world had nothing to offer them.

    We are heading toward a global society; where will our outside be?

    • Cory

      Brilliant post, Gerald.  Sorry I’ve already given away the lager today! 

  • Freeman

    Tom and Guest;
                          Laughable.  What happened to the “cost-benefit” factor.
    Isn’t America in a fiscal crisis ? Why do we fund  “Special Interest”–give them high and mighty life styles while America ‘goes down the drain.
    Tax payers “foot the bill” and Private industry reaps the profits. Sound familiar– Wall street and Banking crisis. We are so mentally challenged.

    • Cory

      Freeman, I would like to buy you an ale or lager of your choosing!

  • BS

    Will space travel be the only escape from the ever expanding control of our government?  AKA ObamaCare

    • ThresherK

      That’s a pretty long stretch to make for a pretty lame joke.

      Hope the FBI wasn’t wiretapping you or going thru your library lists under Shrub.

      • Cory

        ThresherK, I must disagree.  It wasn’t pretty lame, it was entirely lame.

    • Anonymous

      or maybe you’d like to consider the promises of “weapons of mass destruction”

  • Bob

    Is Hight Speed Rail the next money pit project to replace NASA?

  • ebw343

    My own vehicle analogy isn’t a Maserati but as beat-up, rusty Ford Econoline that was built to haul cargo. In the Shuttle’s case it was purpose-built to carry parts up to build a space station.

     Now that ISS is finished there’s no more cargo to be hauled than what can fit in a small hatchback, and the old van just isn’t cost-effective for commuting. Dropping the analogy, the Shuttle’s not for deep space exploration.

  • Ivan G

    I know the Virgin Galactic launch looked like cowboys flying crazy spacecraft (and the transcript from SSOne proved it) but what about pilots flying the new spacecraft for low earth orbit instead of the 1,000+ ground crew required for each ‘programmed’ flight?

  • Charlie mc

        The successes of the space program have been both man’s greatest technological achievements and its failures its great tragedies. As far as mankind is concerned, the greatest triumph has been the successes of the Hubble Space Telescope and the revelation of the enormity, beauty and history of our “home” which is after all is said and done, the entire cosmos. This knowledge has been most appreciated by people all over the world who have begun to contemplate the entirety of it all from our knowledge of the earth as the only home we have, or have yet to see anywhere.
         The distances left untraversed must stay so until light speed travel is possible. To get to the nearest star at current attained speeds would take 26,000 years!! The danger and usefulness of trips to the planets nearer to us is questionable at least. Rather, let us use the data we have already received to work towards global understanding and cooperation to help this fragile “film” of life we have on earth be rejuvenated and sustained to guarantee the children of the world a healthy and fertile environment for the continuation of life on this unique and thusfar only, planet with life on its surface. 

    • RM Guy

      The enormity of the cosmos?  What do you consider to be so horribly reprehensible about the cosmos?

      • Anonymous

        1 little misapplied word? you must have listened to GrammarGirl and bit the bait-
        -and you think the only thing from NASA has been tang?
        whoo hoo
        the above is a very conflicted set of opinions – yet essentially he takes your tack that the space program should fold -
        have i mis-apprehended something?

        enormity of folly – immensity of possibility – a careful use of vocab would more seem to imply one could understand the need for in-person exploration, rather than couch-potato joy-sticking 

        • RM Guy

          You’re clearly correct.  I shall henceforth never presume to try and engage any of you superior intellects in topics of which I know nothing, other than spelling.

  • M. F. E.

    For Chaikin: What are the “enormous” benefits of going into space?  We have been hearing about them for decades, but nothing has happened that even approaches balancing the cost of these programs.

    I realize that the NASA satellites programs have been enormously important in helping us understand weather mechanisms here on earth.  But a manned space station?  — Let alone going further out. 

  • Ivan G

    and what’s so scary to the government about privatized space flight? It’s not like they’ve done a good job taking their trash out of orbit when they were finished with it. (see MIR and Skylab and the 10,000 unused satellites circling the planet). Maybe we should consider using Andy Griffith’s “Salvage” as a model for financing the next 20 years of spaceflight – a lot of platinum and gold floating around up there.

    • Cory

      Because the motivation of private enterprise is profit, nothing else.  Ethics, morality, and common benefit aren’t always profitable.

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY (WBFO)

    The thing I am not hearing is what this means for inspiring a generation to want to educate and further themselves and humanity. Talk to virtually any astronaut or tech person in NASA and they had heroes they saw going into space and they either wanted to get there themselves, or help get people into space.  Sending robots or watching someone in China or India is not going to inspire our children to learn and explore. 


    There’s no more manned NASA flights, and as silly as this seems – No Star Trek, which inspired countless other scientists and space explorers.

    • Anonymous

      It will be Sulu not Kirk.

  • Capnbilly66

    What about the X-37B?  Read up on its capabilities.  We DO have a replacement for the shuttle.  It’s importance is, for some reason, being downplayed. 

  • Peter

    why does Tom have a hair across his ass with Andy?

    • RM Guy

      I heard that, too, and I hope it was Andy wouldn’t STFU and let other people talk.  He’s smart, but so were the other panelists.

  • Gary Brownell

    The problem with manned space flight is that it is too expensive for the meager, nearly non-existent science it produces. The real science is done with unmanned missions, and that should be NASA’s focus.

  • Aranphor

    I am sick of listening to the misinformation about what we did get as benefits from the Space Program. Many scientific advances have come directly out of our Space Exploration. Focus on the real, not some oddball thinking it was a “Space Vacation for a few dozen”.

    • RM Guy

      What is your example to the contrary?

  • Bob

    Isn’t clean energy similar to space exploration in the aspect that we somehow expect government throwing money at it for deccades will result in cheaper results in the future. 

    Couldn’t you also say the alternate, that if we wait 10 years technology will be better so it will be cheaper to wait until the technology catches up.

    • Cory

      Couldn’t you say the same thing about cancer and parkinson’s disease?

  • Aranphor

    It’s more than “pretty pictures”. What an ignorant thing to even say.

    • RM Guy

      OK.  Name three besides Tang & freeze-dried berries–three that needed to be done in outer space, not three that could have been done in a lab in Pasadena.  NASA was born in the defense and intelligence traditions, both psychotically secretive.  All NASA gave us–for our tax dollars, not our voluntary investment–was pretty pictures in coffee table books, and Tang.

      • Cory

        We could have given that money back to the wealthy, so that they could have generously created more jobs for those of us at the bottom.

        • Anonymous

          generously – you jest,of course -

      • Anonymous

        for some, ignorance is its own reward – ignorance is not passive, it is actively sought – you seem very active

      • Terry Tree Tree

        RM Guy,  GPS satellites, Weather satellites, wide-spread Velcro use, much faster assembly of space stations, higher-heat-resistant tiles, high-heat-resistant epoxies, any space-plane that follows, a re-useable space vehicle, millions of miles of travel, with a better-than-expected safety record, the knowledge that we did it; so we CAN do it again!

        • RM Guy

          First, which of those couldn’t have been developed in a land-based lab?  And how long have you worked for NASA?

  • Dan

    Manned space flight is too expensive.  Lets continue exploring for less money by favoring unmanned missions like Spirit and Opportunity.  So much cheaper with lots of great science and pushing the bounds of exploration.  Meanwhile we should work on making manned space flight cheper.  

    • Anonymous

      and that is only going to happen by continuing the work on/with manned flight

  • Bill N

    For those who want space to serve as inspiration, watch this video and look at the passion of the people who are involved in private space exploration. The innovation is there, the passion is there, and the future is there. Why are they less inspirational than the space program. The fact that SpaceX has 900 employees and the Shuttle program had 15,000 is pretty inspirational to me. The future of space is in the hands of entrepreneurs, not governments.


    • Cory

      Because I trust an entity at least theoretically answerable to the population as a whole, as opposed to only being answerable to stakeholders and shareholders.

  • Tom in Austin

    I recommend watching JFK’s speech regarding the benefits of space exploration.  Besides his strong arguments in favor of exploring space, the speech includes flourishes of humor:


  • Dick

    Take a look at the material on The High Frontier (just Google that phrase). A Professor from U Penn, Gerald O’Neill produced a very serious proposal in the 70s for a series of interconnected goals to exploit space. There were several hearings in Congress and lots of discussion. It all petered out, but I can’t help wondering what things would be like today if we’d gone ahead with that.

  • Modavations

    Fortuneatly this will all move to the Private sector.The problem is, NASA became a Welfare program for Nerds.Good work Democrats!!!

    • Cory

      Any objective analysis of your post must conclude cluelessness.

  • Don

    I was just thinking how much better it would have been to put off the last shuttle launch until they could use the event of it to unveil the first ship(s) to replace it.

    Also, Neil Degrasse Tyson was on Real Time w/ Bill Maher not long ago and he mentioned the relatively little cost of NASA’s yearly budget in the grand scheme of things. With all the talk of cutting earmarks from government spending, it seems like there are far better places to take that 18 billion a year from.

  • Idrisyn

    I’m not sure the emphasis on symbolism and so on really reflect the meaning of the shuttle program through its history. I remember Richard Linklater’s comments about the reaction of all his friends at the time to the Challenger disaster: “We laughed. We thought it was funny.”

  • david

    Just like the prized European models many here asked for a couple years ago concerning healthcare.
    Bigger Govt. can solve our problems.
    Well! as in our European model, the monster got to big, so it had to shed some fat by returning programs back to the private sector, where they NOW seem to work better and cost less.
    NASA and the space program may be our first of many sheds.
    But! as Obama stated, “shared sacrifice” and “somebody has to take a haircut”.
    As some stated, the money saved here can be used for something much better down here on earth, maybe, BIG FAT raises for Obama’s White House staff!!!!!!!!
    Hate to see the program end.

    • Idrisyn

      I don’t see the connexion to health care. Health care is a specific case where achieving an efficient use of resources requires central planning, either with govt managing the provision of health care or by very strict regulation of insurers (to ensure for example that they do not operate to make profits). The experiment of organizing health care has been done in country after country and that’s what the evidence shows.

      • david

        Health care is another entitlement program that will cost more than they are telling you. Look at it as a 300 lb. man adding an additional 50 lbs. to his weight. That additional wt. will create additional problems that will cost him in the long run. The European model grew their govt. by adding entitlements or govt. run programs, health care was just one of them. I used it because it is our newest 50lbs.
        Check the lastest on Europe, many are considering selling their stuff to private sectors inorder to show they are doing something about their debt problems.

        • Brett

          You, a United States Postal employee with what I’m sure is pretty cushy health insurance, talks about health care as “another entitlement program” pulling down our economy…oh, and you’re now invoking the phrase “European model” in a derogatory context every chance you get!?!? Hypocrite! Bigot! When you’re with your friends, do you use terms like “foreigners”? 

          If you are not engaging in a game of “how ya’ gonna act” with regard to your health insurance, what are you doing? Why don’t you refuse your government sponsored health care if it is sinking our country???? Why not turn postal delivery completely over to the private sector, eh? Why should my tax dollars pay some semi-skilled worker, who should be making minimum wage, solid middle class wages to stick letters in a box while he complains about others wanting the health insurance he enjoys??? Talk about suckling the government’s teat—you see, you’re not part of the solution, david, you’re part of the problem! Maybe self-loathing is your thing, I don’t know… The ridiculousness of your posts used to be entertaining…

        • Ron

          You are talking one country that 90% of all bussiness was own by the goverment, I got an idea lets let walmart run the country they already have plans for more stres in China by the year 2026, then in the US, America has turned into a what can you give me or what’s in it for me country change that mind set and we will return to our former greatess as President kennedy put it “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” that is the America I want to see but what I see is a bunch of capapble children graduating while on special education and then collecting SSI, these are the programs that need fixing Germany has had a workfare program in place for years it doesn’t take much to push a broom. Quit handing checks to lazy people teach them to work. We were oncegreat because we all did our part, lets all do our part again.

  • Dammit_Jim

    The Space Shuttle is confined to Low Earth Orbit(LEO), roughly 200-250 miles in space–about the distance from PDX to Seattle.  The nearest planetary body is the Moon at 250,000 miles.
    The shuttle could not do a left turn and head to the Moon, Sun or any other planet. It was a child’s toy with training wheels. And it regressed from even the ancient Apollo Lunar Program.  These Astronauts went to Seattle  not the Moon.

    We are farther away from the Moon today in 2011, than 50 years ago when President Kennedy made his Moon Speech in 1961. We are not going anywhere beyond this rock.A child born today has more chance at playing a Spaceship Captain on a Hollywood Sci-Fi Franchise than to be an actual interplanetary astronaut. Cultivate the good looks, hair, and debonair charm to seduce an alien queen.  Rarrrrrrrr!   And lose the physics, astronomy,  and rocket science.

    People compare the conquest of space to Columbus sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to  prove the world was not flat.  Or Lewis and Clark setting across the continent.  Or Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic.  OR Livingstone searching for the headwaters of the Nile –TRY DOING ANY OF THOSE MISSIONS WHILE HOLDING YOUR BREATH.  In space you have to bring every  breath of oxygen you inhale.  It cost $1000.oo per kilogram  to lift material out  into LEO.  Bring Fuel, water and oxygen and you will not have much space for people or equipment.  And even bowel movements need to accounted and brought back for analysis.

    Let inanimate robotic objects like Hubble and Voyager probe the galaxy.  Man is too fragile and needs too much and tends to get PTSD after any risk.   Use the money saved to make better kick-ass, Sci-Fi Movie Prequels starring Hand Solo.  Logical Vulcans would agree.

  • Ryan

    My question is this. Our economy is one based on growth. Our planet can only allow for a limited amount of growth. It seems to me that if we are to stay this course we will have to go to space sooner than later. So why do we keep cutting the funding? This is after all may mean the survival of our way of life and ultimately the survival of the human species.

  • William

    It is sad to see how Obama has turned NASA into a Moslem outreach agency.

  • Bob

    So they are convincing us by making this open to private businesses, it will benefit the rest of us.  I don’t see that happening.  As usual all the benefit will go to the super rich.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    SILLY!!!  To shut down the Shuttle Program, BEFORE its replacement is on-line and tested!!!  From an front-runner, to a back-seater in space, in one easy lesson.  Executives here can get richer off-shoring , and outsourcing!   $Billion dollar Executives hate paying $40,000 and up wages to anyone.

  • dreamer

    As a land lover I am grateful for planet earth which molded
    us to what we are today. I see no other planet so well suited and beautiful and
    have painful awareness of the many pressing needs of our country; yet my heart
    breaks at this moment of transition as the shuttle and space exploration is so
    deeply rooted in my psyche as to produce literal dreams of it. Dreams of
    American innovation that is not limited but characteristically awesome and
    inspiring; this is a dream that will not die and I feel has a life of its own independent
    of the powers that be. I do hope though, that our national security and
    function can look to retaining autonomous function as sometimes modern business
    interests do not best serve the country. Instead of disbanding departments that
    are not competitive, we need to revamp them or how else will we learn to
    continue effective governance.

  • Brennan511

    If the shuttle has/had “unique capability” hubble, sattelite capture… why wasn’t it used Exclusively for that purpose? Were most trips glamorized $500,000,000 joy rides?
    One of the ‘lunar astronauts’ said that he was depressed at the thought of having to “blast off” one more time just to GET HOME [uh...stay?]
    We should get E.T.’s invitation before we go on more joy rides.
    Platinum Astroids [armegedon?lol] Lunar mining… none need ‘someone’ who needs to go 2… SPACE. Miss Piggy, bon Voyage.
    Stratospheric “air-ships”, that! sounds like an Adventure, return anytime.

  • Charlie mc

    Reply to RM Guy (Yesterday 5:23)
            I like your comment also, and stand corrected. “Immensity” would have been better but still inadequate. Thank you,

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  • Wanderer

    Should have had Robert Zubrin on.  Straight to Mars, each mission building upon those that came before it, and from Mars we could go further into the outer solar system.  Highly recommend Zubrin’s book ‘The Case for Mars’.

  • Richard

    We should confine our limited space resources to projects in earth orbit ie space sations, telescopes, etc.

  • RocketGuy

    What would Werner von Braun ( An amazing rocket scientist & pretty much the head of rocket science in the 50′s & 60′s) say about us giving up? There are still so many things to do in space, and we shouldn’t have to rely on private companies to make those realities possible.

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