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Reaching for the Stars: Space Shuttle Columbia

President Bush led mourners Tuesday in a ceremony honoring the seven astronauts who died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Four guests discuss what makes exploring space -- and the people who do it -- so compelling.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, thoughts about going to space and the people who do it. Neil Degrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American museum of natural history in New York. Roger Launius chairs the space history division of the Air and Space Museum in Washington. He is a former NASA historian.

    Octavia Butler is a science fiction writer and winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction's highest awards. And Timothy Ferris is a science writer and a professor at the University of California Berkeley. His most recent book is titled, "Seeing in the Dark."

    Mr. Launius, why do we all care so much about these seven people?

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    Well, there are American heroes. I don't think that there's any question about that. They were lost in a tragic way. We've assigned a special place to the astronauts who fly in space. It's a difficult, risky activity. And those who are willing to accept that responsibility, we grant to them a higher status than we do a lot of our normal activities.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Have we done that from the very beginning of the space program?

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    Without question. From the very beginning of the space age we have assigned this special status to our astronauts beginning with the Mercury 7 who were just embraced by the American public when they were first unveiled in 1959 before they had done anything in space.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Tyson, what's the source of that? Why do they have this special place?

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    Well, I think we can generalize that idea. It's not simply that space has a special place but that people on the frontier have a special place in human culture. And if you go far enough back in time, you know, the first person to emerge from a cave and wonder what's on the other side of that mountain or what's across the land or what's across the ocean, these are pioneers who are risking life and limb to make some kind of a discovery.

    And I think we should be proud as human beings that people such as this live among us because without them we'd all just still be in caves today.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    You don't think it's necessarily related directly just to the fact of going to the stars.

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    Well, today it is because we've already mapped the Earth, we've already mapped the continents and the oceans so we look around and where is that next frontier that's going to capture the soul of curiosity of human beings? It is space. There's no doubt about it. It is a privilege of 20th century now into the 21st century research that space exists as that frontier for us all.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Octavia Butler, what would you add for subtract from that?

  • OCTAVIA BUTLER:

    I think really that it's true. I think that remembering back to my own experience getting up early and watching Alan Sheppard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, all the others go up when I was a child I think it influenced me in ways that meant a great deal to my later career as a writer and also just to my dreams. I think they're our surrogates because they go where we can't go. And in a sense they take us along with them.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In other words, there's a little astronaut in all of us?

  • OCTAVIA BUTLER:

    I think so. I think so. Whether we like to admit it or not, I think sometimes we like to feel that, oh, we've outgrown all that. But I think the awe and the fascination is still there.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Tim Ferris, what do you think? Is it in all of us? Are we all struck with the same desire to go to space, so as a consequence we admire those who do?

  • TIMOTHY FERRIS:

    I think there's something to that. We are descended from explorers. This country was created by explorers, not only the Europeans and others who started coming here in the 15th century but the folks that came over the Bering Strait more than 10,000 years ago. It is through exploration that we've learned things. As a species we depend on expanding human knowledge to improve our destiny on this planet and ultimately on other planets.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Did you agree with the president when he said that it has been an ancient dream of humanity to reach for the stars? Is that correct?

  • TIMOTHY FERRIS:

    It is correct, although I don't know if it means literally in the sense of going there. It's only relatively recently in history that we discovered how far away the stars and planets are or even that the earth is only one among many worlds. But in all cultures that I've ever read about — now or in history — people have used words for the stars that are like our own associations: Lofty and full of aspiration. And they've found it important to have at least a reasonable story as to what the universe is like and how it got to be that way.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Launius you said — and everybody has said — that these seven people are heroes and astronauts have been considered heroes from the very beginning. But there are an awful lot of people in everyday life who do heroic things, who risk their lives. We've been through it since 9/11 with firemen and police officers in particular. And there are all kinds of other people in times of war, et cetera. Why astronauts?

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    Well, I think these other folks are also heroes. They've been recognized as such. The nature of space flight has been accepted and is understood as being very risky. It's conducted in the cold light of everybody watching throughout the world. And when there is an accident like this, it does bring home the fact that what they are doing is very difficult to do and they are extraordinary people for being willing to… for their willingness to shoulder those responsibilities and to take those sorts of risks to expand knowledge about the universe.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Extraordinary people. How does NASA distinguish extraordinary people enough to be able to select the people who go into space, have gone into space, these seven and all of those who preceded them?

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    Well, it's very interesting. NASA is made up of extraordinary people, even those who do not fly. There's very accomplished scientists and engineers that are a part of these programs whose names are unknown to almost everyone.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    As these would have been had they not died.

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    Well, that's correct. They were known within the community.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure.

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    But not to the general public. Quite frankly, our astronauts have not been well known to most people since the very first era of the heroic age of John Glenn and Alan Sheppard and Neil Armstrong. But in the process of this tragedy, they have been elevated as representative of the best that we have to offer.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The best "we" meaning America?

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    As a nation, as the United States and perhaps in some level as people of the world.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Tyson, you said they're part of even a larger tradition of pioneers. Something in them makes them special and that has to be recognized now by a federal agency called NASA to select these people and put them in these positions?

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    Well, like I said, I'm glad that I live… that I belong to a species that has members of that species behave this way, with bravery, knowing that there's the risk of death, knowing that they may not come back, yet they do it anyway. This is a whole other kind of enterprise that astronauts are engaged in today.

    By the way, the reason why our frontier people are now going into space is because we have the technology to do so. Our post-Second World War technology allows us to take the technology, the engineering, the science, that was born not only in this nation but elsewhere, also in Russia and Germany and the like, and create that frontier that had been operating on people's souls of curiosity ever since history has been recorded.

    I would add that the people who were sent up, they… you know, they knew the risk. They knew the risk and they did it anyway. And they… even though they were unknown at the time they were launched by most people in nearly every case they're hometown heroes. You go back. They're known in their hometown — nearly every case — a couple of exceptions.

    But by and large they're hometown heroes when we run programs at the Roe Center for Earth and Space, if there's an astronaut embedded within the program, the attendance goes up. There's a spike for people to hear what that astronaut has to say so they remain icons even if they are not recognized on the street by the average person.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What about little kids who come to your museum, young people? That's a better way of saying it. Young people who come, do they see astronauts as heroes as well or do they see space… do they look through your telescopes and look at what you have to show them in a kind of oh my goodness I would like to do that or in awe? Explain it.

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    There's a lot of that. What I try to convey to them is that space exploration as an enterprise is a two tined fork. One tine is we might send robots somewhere, our mechanical emissaries to do sort of the first search and mapping. And then the other tine is, well, we send people there — as we did during the 1960s en route to the Moon. One of the frustrations that has prevailed across society is we need that next goal. Is it Mars? Is it Europa? We need some next goal. That's what really triggered an entire generation of people to become excited about space exploration in the 1960s. But….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Go ahead.

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    But in our facility, the kids see the science and they see the fruits of astronauts in orbit. And the combination of those two stokes their dreams and also stokes their interest in an academic path. And so I'd like to believe that that dual exposure, stoking the dream and the academics, might make an aerospace engineer out of them, a physicist and today perhaps even a biologist or a chemist because this new frontier of astrobiology where we're looking for life, we're going to need other disciplines as well.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Octavia Butler, when you heard the president in the segment we just ran from the memorial service, go through who these seven people were and a little bit about them, did you find yourself… what did you find yourself thinking about them? Were they extraordinary? And if so, in what way?

  • OCTAVIA BUTLER:

    I think what impressed me most was how hard they worked to achieve their dream of becoming what they were. They were people who… I suppose I say this because it's something that I've investigated in my writing just looking at other people and considering why people do what they do. These were people who worked incredibly hard to achieve a dream that a lot of us imagine, well, it would be interesting or if only we could go up or whatever, but they actually did it.

    Not only did they do it but they did it with so many credits. I mean, physicians, pilots, people who could, for instance, what I understand is a lot of these people were doing… were preparing with biological experiments how to fly long distances in space, for instance, how to go to Mars, and biologically how to survive and how to do well. They were doing things that I think are both fascinating and necessary to us as a species.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But you make the point that, yes, they may have been taken in by the adventure and the mystery and the excitement of going to space, but they worked very, very hard.

  • OCTAVIA BUTLER:

    They were practical, they were persistent, they were hard working.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Tim Ferris, what was going through your mind about these seven people? Who are they to you?

  • TIMOTHY FERRIS:

    I had grown rather fond of this crew. I don't normally follow shuttle missions terribly closely but on Thursday I just happened upon some of their live broadcasts on the Internet. And I ended up watching them all day in a little square up in the corner of my computer.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Who were they talking to?

  • TIMOTHY FERRIS:

    Well, they do… the shuttle crews do live broadcasts that are carried on NASA television. Many of them are picked up in schools and on educational feeds of different kinds.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure.

  • TIMOTHY FERRIS:

    And I just… without anticipating it, I became quite fond of them. I started going out at night to watch the shuttle go over. So it was, of course, a particular shock for me when this terrible thing happened. I would like to say, we certainly… we're all aware of what terrible risks there are associated with space flight but this was the 113th shuttle flight. We've now had two fatal missions.

    That's a success rate of over 98 percent, which is within about a percent or so of flying certain fighter planes off of aircraft carriers. In addition to the bravery of the crew, I think we should recognize the dedication and hard work of all those folks at NASA who have pushed the threshold of danger so far down in what is, after all, a reusable space ship that repeatedly goes into orbit.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Ferris, have you ever wanted to go to space yourself?

  • TIMOTHY FERRIS:

    Yes, I applied to fly on a program called the Journalist in Space Program which was canceled with the first shuttle crash. I would fly tomorrow if invited.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Octavia Butler, would you fly tomorrow if invited?

  • OCTAVIA BUTLER:

    Yes.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why?

  • OCTAVIA BUTLER:

    Probably because as I mentioned I have been fascinated since junior high school. In fact, before then actually. The second book I can recall buying new was a book about the stars. I have been interested. I have been aware and I guess the only way I've been able to go really is in my mind and of course in the movies. The real thing would be amazing, I'm sure of it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Tyson, how about you?

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    Well, I grew up in the '60s. In fact, I was born in 1958 the same birth year as NASA itself. During the '60s when I saw the astronauts nearly all had crew cuts and they were all from the military. We were fighting an unpopular war and "Hair" on Broadway was setting box office records. So there was a disconnect between what I saw during that civil rights movement of that time and the astronauts who were going up.

    So while I was definitely interested, more as a news story than as something that I would ultimately one day become, and it was really a disconnect. That I think calls attention to the fact that these latter-day crews are so mixed. The demographics are impressive not only within the nation but around the world.

    It's that kind of exposure that enables me as an educator to stand up in front of a group of kids and say, "you can be that." There's this rainbow of people up there in orbit. That gives me a lot of tools to work with when I'm trying to get them excited.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But what if one of those kids said, Mr. Tyson, would you go into space if you had a chance tomorrow?

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    I'm actually intrigued about the effects of weightlessness. I'd be happy just riding that vomit comet you've heard about, just a plane that goes up. That's really it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Okay.

  • NEIL DE GRASSE TYSON:

    I've never ranked myself among those who would be going out of the cave and crossing the ocean. Perhaps it's because growing up in New York City was dangerous enough.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I hear you. Okay. Mr. Launius, how about you? You worked for NASA.

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    I worked for NASA for almost 12 years. I would absolutely go into space. I've often said I would like to be the first historian into space.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Oh, my goodness.

  • ROGER LAUNIUS:

    It would be a wonderful experience to experience weightlessness on a sustained basis, to see the earth from above. That's something that has always intrigued me as a very exciting prospect, to gain a new and different perspective and all of the astronauts have talked about how it's changed the way they look at things.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    All right. Thank you all four very much.

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