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NASA's Lessons From The Outer Limits17:50


In April 1981, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched a space shuttle program meant to take astronauts, cargo, research experiments and military equipment into low Earth orbit. The shuttle mission, called STS-1 for the first "Space Transportation System" effort, lasted 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds.

NASA's 30-year space shuttle program will end when shuttle Atlantis, scheduled to launch on Friday, returns from its 12-day mission. The last flight of the shuttle program is STS-135.

Neil deGrasse Tyson joins NPR's host Michel Martin to talk more about the conclusion of the space shuttle program and that program's impact. He is an astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, and host of the PBS television series "NOVA scienceNow."

DeGrasse Tyson points out a geopolitical gain of the shuttle program — it brought together disparate countries to build the International Space Station. He calls it the largest global collaboration outside of the waging of war. "It's a remarkable achievement not only geopolitically but also as an engineering marvel. The thing in all of its splayed form is about the area of a football field," he says.

DeGrasse Tyson recalls that telescopes shot into orbit used to quickly break down and be de-orbited within three years. Then came Hubble. The Hubble Space Telescope was serviced frequently. Its worn-out parts could be replaced, and its software could be upgraded. "It was a remarkable marriage of the man-in-space program and science," he says.

NASA's shuttle program not only expanded America's knowledge base but, deGrasse Tyson says, also affected the nation's mood. He recalls that in the 1960s, "every next space mission was more ambitious than the previous one. When you do that, it brings an entire nation with it. It influenced our culture, architecture, food, the ambitions of students in schools, clothing, storytelling on television and movies."

NASA's program also changed American perceptions of the Earth. DeGrasse Tyson explains that in 1968, when the astronauts of Apollo 8 photographed the Earth rising over the moon, it marked the beginning of the modern conservation movement. He says Americans suddenly looked at the Earth as an entity unto itself, rather than a sphere divided by political boundaries; as something to protect.

However, many people will remember the disasters of NASA's shuttle program.

In 1986, Challenger's launch into space ended tragically after an explosion. All seven crew members died.

In 2003, seven more died when Columbia all but disintegrated just minutes before it was supposed to land at the end of its mission.

When asked whether we learned something from these two moments, deGrasse Tyson says that failure is fundamental for advancement, and that being on the frontier comes with expectations that not everything will go perfectly.

He notes that the Challenger disaster spread concern across NASA about the safety of shuttle designs. DeGrasse Tyson points out that if any crew is sitting adjacent to fuel tanks on a shuttle, their lives will be taken if those tanks explode. He says that if a crew is sitting on top of the fuel tank and it explodes, the crew can use a "rocket nozzle" to propel the shuttle away from harm. "Henceforth, any newly designed spacecraft will not have astronauts adjacent to the fuel tanks," he says.

Regardless, many may question the value of spending money on space exploration. Why not spend that money down here? DeGrasse Tyson reasons that America actually spends four-tenths of a penny per tax dollar on NASA. "If you take a paper dollar and cut off four-tenths of one percent of it, you don't even get into the ink of that dollar," he says to illustrate.

Looking to the future, deGrasse Tyson says he would double NASA's budget if he had the power to do so, and that would allow the U.S. to explore further regions of space. He notes that Venus, with a temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, has a runaway greenhouse effect; and Mars once had running water but now is bone dry. "Bad stuff is happening on those planets. I want to know what that is," he says.

"If you're going to say, 'Only spend money to study Earth' and you're not going to study anything else ... you can't build a science on a study of one. And the universe provides the repository for comparative places so you can say, 'Oh that's how that works there! Let me bring that back to Earth.' So the value for it, especially for this minute cost, is incalculable," DeGrasse Tyson says.

In the coming days, Tell Me More will feature several conversations with pioneers in space exploration, including the first African-American to walk in space and the first Arab Muslim in space. Please check back for those stories.

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