There are 30 years between the bookends of the first and last NASA space shuttle flights. In those three decades, the shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour flew well over 100 missions.
But this summer, the program draws to a close to allow the space agency to dedicate more funding and energy to exploring the farther reaches of space. In the process, NASA hands over greater responsibility to private space companies.
It's a moment that American astronauts Leroy Chiao and Cady Coleman describe as sad, but essential. The two reflected on their favorite and most memorable moments from the shuttle era with All Things Considered host Melissa Block.
'For A Few Moments, I Felt Like A Satellite'
Chiao was an astronaut for 15 years and retired in 2005. During his tenure with NASA, he flew four space missions. He says his most magical moment happened on his third flight, when he was doing maintenance during a space walk. A robotic arm moved him between work sites and at one point, he couldn't see the space shuttle or station in his peripheral vision.
"All I had was a faceful of the Earth. And you know, the colors of the Earth from space are much brighter, more vivid than you might imagine, and it almost looks fake," he says. "But for just a few moments, I felt like a satellite, orbiting the Earth on my own."
He says experiences like that have changed him for the better.
"It really made me have a bigger picture of life," he says. "I used to be bothered by little things — if I got overcharged for something or someone was rude. And gosh, after spaceflight, those things aren't important."
Coleman still works in space and recently returned from a trip to the International Space Station. She says her most memorable moment is similar to Chiao's. She describes a time in an area of the International Space Station that has windows all the way around, including one that faces the Earth. She says crouching over it felt like surfing or flying.
"Seeing New England approach so it's in the distance and it's getting closer and closer. Then you're right over it and you see where you live and you see Cape Cod and it's just beautiful, and you want it to stay right there. But it doesn't. It recedes into the distance so quickly," she says. "It makes me wistful and at the same time, I know that in an hour and a half I'll be back."
Chiao says it's possible to see that kind of detail from 200 miles up with the naked eye, but with a telephoto lens you can also see streets, city grids and even fireworks.
Sad But Essential For Shuttle Program To End
Both astronauts say they will be sad to see the space shuttle program end. Chiao says he worries that the biggest loss will be the NASA's "know-how" — how to build and operate the shuttles — which was something other countries have yet to master.
"I'm mourning not just the emotional loss of the shuttle but also the loss of the technology and the loss of national prestige," he says. "Frankly, after this mission, we will no longer have the ability to send American astronauts into space ourselves and arguably, we will no longer be the leaders in human spaceflight until we get that capability back."
Both Chiao and Coleman acknowledge that the program had become too expensive. But Coleman says she's optimistic that NASA's passion for exploration will continue to push the agency forward.
"In order to explore, we need a new vehicle. And we can't fly this one and operate this one. It's too expensive and it drains too many of the people that we need — we need their knowledge and expertise ... to develop new vehicles that will take us further. Because going further is what we're all about," she says. "It's a hard change, it's necessary and in some ways, I think it's OK just to take some time to grieve."
She hopes to see a manned mission to Mars sometime in her lifetime and says it's possible with global cooperation.
"I think we were not made to stay in one place. Our Earth is in the middle of a neighborhood, it's in the middle of a universe, and it is just in our nature to explore," she says. "I think it's necessary to do it technologically in a way that makes sense. That means in terms of money and people and nations and cooperation."
Chiao plans to attend the launch at the Kennedy Space Center, where he says there is a tradition of lighting up cigars after a successful liftoff. Coleman expects the event to be an emotional one.
"I probably cry at most launches," she says. "It's a really emotional thing to see all that power and just knowing that those are people. ... They're friends, practically family, and they're leaving the Earth. It's a really big deal."
The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch at 11:26 a.m. ET on Friday.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Just a small sliver of people have flown on the space shuttle, and we're going to hear now from two of them about that experience - astronauts Leroy Chiao and Cady Coleman.
Leroy Chiao retired from NASA in 2005, after 15 years and four space missions. He joins me here in the studio. Welcome to the program, Dr. Chiao.
Dr. LEROY CHIAO (Astronaut): Thank you. Great to be here.
BLOCK: And Cady Coleman joins us from Russia, from Star City, the cosmonaut training center, where she's debriefing about her most recent mission to the International Space Station. Dr. Coleman, welcome to you. Thanks for being with us.
Dr. CADY COLEMAN (Astronaut): It's nice to be with you.
BLOCK: I can't imagine how many incredible moments each of you had in all of your time in space, but I wonder if there's one that for you when you have a quiet moment and you think about what you've done up there that just really stands out for you. Leroy Chiao?
Dr. CHIAO: Well, for me, the most magical moment in space was during my third shuttle flight, and I was outside doing a spacewalk. And I was attached to the - my feet were attached to the robotic arm, and I was being moved from one worksite to another.
And for several minutes during that transition, I was facing the Earth, and I couldn't see either the space shuttle or the space station out of my peripheral vision. So all I had was a faceful of the Earth.
And, you know, the colors of the Earth from space are much brighter, more vivid than you might imagine, and it almost looks fake. You know, it almost looks like a painting. But I was - for just a few moments, I was - felt like a satellite, just orbiting the Earth on my own and watching the continents and the clouds roll by. And that was just a really magical moment that stands out, for me.
BLOCK: It also sounds like a life-changing experience in some way.
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BLOCK: You're never quite the same after you have that perspective.
Dr. CHIAO: Right. Well, actually, you know, spaceflight, I think it does change people. You know, and everybody kind of gets changed a little bit differently. You know, for me, it really made me have a bigger picture of life. You know, I used to be bothered by little things. If I got overcharged for something or, you know, somebody was rude or something, you know, and, gosh, after spaceflight, those things aren't important.
BLOCK: Cady Coleman, a memory that comes to mind for you of all your time in space?
Dr. COLEMAN: One of our newer modules up on the space station is called the Cupola. And it has a series of windows all the way around and then one big round one on the top as well. And it's the kind of place where when you go into it you kind of feel like you're almost standing up in a cockpit and looking out, but it's actually on the bottom of the space station.
And so, what I found myself doing was almost crouching on that bottom big circular window, and I'm looking out and seeing the Earth. So you're actually sort of surfing over the Earth, and you're really have that sensation of flying.
And, to me, it seems one of my favorite places, which is knowing where my husband and my son were at the time, you know, seeing New England approach and so it's in the distance, and it's getting closer and closer. And then, you're right over it, and you see where you live. And you see Cape Cod, and it's just beautiful. And you just want it to stay right there, but it doesn't. It recedes into the distance so quickly, and it makes me wistful. And at the same time, I know that in an hour and a half, I'll be back.
BLOCK: When you are up on the International Space Station orbiting, what, about 200 miles above the Earth something like that?
Dr. CHIAO: Yeah, about 250 miles, yeah.
BLOCK: What can you see? How specific is your view of Earth from there?
Dr. CHIAO: Well, you can see a surprising number of things. Of course, you can see large cities and airports, but you can see large buildings and skyscrapers, even with the naked eye. But with a telephoto, of course, you can see quite a bit of detail. You can't see individual cars, but you can see streets.
Dr. CHIAO: And, yeah, it's amazing what you can see.
Dr. COLEMAN: We're always discovering, you know, new things, just things you hadn't seen yet. We were passing over Beijing on Chinese New Year, and we saw fireworks, which we didn't think you could see fireworks from space. But there they were, and we captured them in photographs. And it was just a neat way of thinking, you know, we're down there, too.
BLOCK: In all of the time that each of you has spent in space, did you ever get used to it? Did it ever start feeling routine, or were you able to keep that same sense of wonder maybe that you had on your very 0first mission?
Dr. CHIAO: Well, you know, even on my first mission, after about a week, it didn't become routine, but it was still a great view to look at the window. But it was no longer startling to look out the window and, you know, kind of behold what you're seeing.
But it was still wonderful and great to - and we'd still spend most of our time - free time in the windows, looking out and taking photographs. But it's amazing how quickly the human mind and human body can adapt to a new environment.
BLOCK: Did it ever get routine for you, Cady, waking up and being in space?
Dr. COLEMAN: I say joyfully, yes, in terms of just waking up in the morning and thinking, OK, now, I'm now going float down the lab and use the ladies room, so to speak. But it's in a way that was just so marvelous that I was excited that, you know, here I am just floating again. So it did become routine, but I was just thrilled that this was my routine.
BLOCK: I'm talking to shuttle astronauts Leroy Chiao and Cady Coleman. I'd like to hear from both of you your thoughts as the space shuttle program, as we know it, comes to an end, thinking back on the history and what it means that it's now over. Cady Coleman, what about you?
Dr. COLEMAN: I'm probably a little bit in denial. I have to say, you know, I've been, you know, quite busy, you know, flying on the station and busy with that mission, and in some ways, it's been nice not to have to think too much about, you know, the program changing so much.
And, you know, change is hard, and yet, you know, my heart is in exploration, you know, as are the hearts of, I think, most of the people that I work with. And in order to explore, we need a new vehicle, and we can't fly this one and operate this one. It's too expensive, and it drains too many of the people that we need. We need their knowledge and their expertise.
And we need that to develop new vehicles that will take us further. Because going further is what we're all about. So it's a hard change. It's necessary. And in some ways, I think, it's OK just to take some time to grieve.
Dr. CHIAO: You know, for me, it's sad to see the shuttle come to an end, not just from an emotional or a kind of a misty-eyed kind of view. But also, it's sad that we're losing the know-how. We're going to lose the know-how on how to build and operate a space plane. And we are the only country that's done that.
Russia tried. They orbited their Buron one orbit and landed it automatically without a crew. The French tried with the Hermes. The Japanese tried with the Hope and they never even started making hardware.
However, Cady's right in that the shuttle ended up being way too expensive to operate. And so, you know, with sadness, I agree that it was too expensive and we need to find a better way. But, frankly, after this mission, we will no longer have the ability to send American astronauts into space ourselves. And, arguably, we will no longer be the leaders in human space flight until we get that capability back.
BLOCK: I'm curious to hear from both of you about your thoughts on the future of space flight and whether that by definition means we should be going to Mars. Cady Coleman, what do you think?
Dr. COLEMAN: I think that we were not made to stay in one place. You know, our Earth is in the middle of a neighborhood. It's in the middle of the universe. And it is just our nature to explore that. And I think it's necessary to do it, technologically, you know, in a way that makes sense.
And that means in terms of money and people and nations and cooperation, I suspect that the route will be back to the moon and then onto Mars, which at this point is our best bet for a habitable place that we can explore and, you know, understand how it relates to our world. So I think that Mars is in our future.
BLOCK: In our future in our lifetime, do you think? I think you're both are about 50 years old.
Dr. COLEMAN: I would say so. I mean, I don't think I'll be going and I'm not sure if Leroy will be going. But these kids that we talk to, they are the ones that will be able to do these things, if we make sure that they're ready. And I think we've got a long ways to go to make sure that they're ready.
BLOCK: Leroy Chiao, your thoughts on whether Mars is on the figurative horizon.
Dr. CHIAO: Mars, absolutely. Absolutely Mars. But within our lifetime, I'm hopeful within our lifetime. Unfortunately, I've recognized that I won't be going either. But when I go talk to young people, kids, I say, hey, one of you may be the first person on Mars.
BLOCK: Where will each of you be for the final launch of the Atlantis shuttle?
Dr. CHIAO: Oh, I'll be at the Kennedy Space Center. And we have a tradition after a successful shuttle launch, we light up a cigar just like they back in the old Apollo days. And so, it'll be sad that we'll be lighting up our last cigar. But we'll be cheering Atlantis and her crew on.
BLOCK: And Cady, what about you?
Dr. COLEMAN: Well, I'll be down there, actually, with my family, which is significant to me to watch such a thing with my family.
BLOCK: Do you expect that will be an emotional moment for you?
Dr. COLEMAN: You know, I probably cry at most launches. I mean it's - I think it's a really emotional thing to see all that power and just knowing that those are people and they're real people, they're friends, practically family and they're leaving the Earth. It's a really big deal and I cry just about at every one.
BLOCK: Cady Coleman and Leroy Chiao, it's been fascinating to talk to both of you. Thank you so much.
Dr. CHIAO: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Dr. COLEMAN: Thank you.
BLOCK: Shuttle astronaut Cady Coleman continues to work for NASA. Leroy Chiao retired in 2005.
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BLOCK: We've got more coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.