NASA’s Shuttle Era Winds Down With Bittersweet Moments, Grocery Run

Despite troublesome weather, space shuttle Atlantis blasted into orbit for the final time Friday with a four-person crew and a payload of food for the International Space Station. Judy Woodruff and science correspondent Miles O'Brien discuss this final mission, the end of the space shuttle era and what's next for NASA.

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    The last flight of a NASA space shuttle brought thousands of spectators to Cape Canaveral today.

    Judy Woodruff has that story.


    Three decades after the first shuttle launch, spectators crowded in this morning to watch the Atlantis lift off. It was visible for less than a minute, before disappearing into the clouds with a crew of four astronauts aboard. After 12 days in orbit, the shuttle will return home on July 20.

    NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien, who has watched more than 40 launches, was there to cover it today.

    Hello, Miles. And thank you for talking to us.


    Judy, pleasure to be with you.


    Miles, other than the fact that this is the final one, what was — what was important about today's mission? What should we know about this?


    This mission was important, in a word, about food. They brought up a lot of food for the International Space Station, about a year's worth, for the six member crew.

    You know, Atlantis was scheduled to be the potential rescue mission shuttle for Endeavour, the penultimate shuttle mission. NASA said, well, if we have taken this orbiter all the way to the point that it's ready to launch on demand and do a rescue mission if need be, why not just launch it, do one more mission, and provide some additional materiel and stores for the International Space Station?

    That's why you have a four-person crew. If, for some reason, Atlantis can't come back, its heat shield is compromised, it's not safe to return, that four-person crew will have to make its way down to Earth on Russian Soyuz rockets. And that could take upwards of a year.


    So, Miles, given that this is the last mission, how are people talking it there at NASA in the space community? This has to be emotional for them.


    It is a tough thing.

    We're talking about 9,000 workers here directly linked to the space shuttle program. And, of course, this whole region is — there is a huge ripple effect, because this is obviously a big jobs generator, the place they call the Space Coast.

    But in particular today, I spent some time talking with Travis Thompson, who spent 33 years here at the Kennedy Space Center working on the shuttle program. He is the lead technician on the closeout crew, the guys who button them up, the astronauts, strap them in, shut the door, and send them off to space.

    He and his team, it was a very emotional day for them. As they were finishing up their job, they had put together a series of cards with messages, talking about their appreciation for the program, their patriotism and, frankly, their sadness for it, and the fact — the final word was "God bless America," held by Travis Thompson himself.

    This is Travis Thompson's last day on the job. After 100 shuttle missions, getting the crews strapped in and ready to go to space, tomorrow, he has no job. Where he is going to go to work? As he said, "My job is putting human beings in spacecraft to go to space. I don't see a lot of prospects for doing that somewhere else."

    So, it is a poignant moment for him.


    So, finally, Miles, look back with us for just a moment, the legacy of the shuttle program after, what, 135 missions.


    Yes, it's — it's a mixed bag, Judy.

    I mean, you're talking about a vehicle that is incredibly complicated and very expensive to fly. And, frankly, it's not the safest way to go to space, as we saw with the two accidents. There is no crew escape system that is viable during the ascent to space.

    And, so, the shuttle has learned in — and helped us learn, in a sense, the limits of our technological reach and capability. It's taught NASA a lesson about what happens when you try to cut costs in the design, the capital costs up front, make compromises in that, which ultimately lead to higher operating costs. That is the downside of it.

    The upside is it successfully completed the International Space Station, a $100 billion project. It's now classified as a national laboratory. And, who knows, they might come up with some scientific breakthroughs up there. They are just beginning to scratch the surface on science there.

    So, we don't know yet, but the shuttle era made that space station possible. Now it's time for NASA to think about moving on and exploring and reaching toward Mars.


    And speaking of that, Miles, we will have you back next week, when we do take a look at the future of the space program, what comes next.

    Miles O'Brien, thanks very much.


    You're welcome, Judy.