Return to Transcripts main page


Beyond Atlantis: The Next Frontier

Aired July 3, 2011 - 20:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With one remaining engine starts, the shuttle has cleared the tower.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A spacecraft that launches like a rocket and lands like a plane.


ZARRELLA: The beginning of a remarkable era.

CHARLIE BOLDEN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: What we did in shuttle over 30 years dwarfs what was done in the Apollo era.

ZARRELLA: But 135 missions later, the space shuttle program is being eliminated.

What's next for NASA?

CHRISTOPHER FERGUSON, SHUTTLE ATLANTIS COMMANDER: You know, Mars has been 20 years in the future for the last 30 years.

ZARRELLA: And could commercial space travel be on the horizon?


ZARRELLA: Hello. I'm John Zarrella, and this is the space shuttle Atlantis. On the 17th of May, it rolled from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the Vehicle Assembly Building a quarter-mile away. The last time a shuttle would make the journey.

Bringing a glorious, sometimes tragic, era one step closer to the end.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): But was it worth it? Three decades in low earth orbit not venturing outward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Folks, how you doing?

ZARRELLA: If you ask the man commanding the last shuttle flight.

FERGUSON: It was a successful program. We essentially have command of low earth orbit.

ZARRELLA: If you ask the men who walked on the moon.

GENE CERNAN, APOLLO ASTRONAUT: Once you've been to the moon, staying home is not good enough. I'm an exploration guy. I want to go where man has never gone before.

ZARRELLA: Before Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, had made his journey, NASA had a new grand vision. A reusable spacecraft.

CERNAN: I have a model of the shuttle.

ZARRELLA: From the beginning, it was a marvelous machine releasing from its cargo bay deep space probes like Ulysses that went to Jupiter. Astronauts ventured out untethered to capture and retrieved failed satellites, dead in space, dangerous feats unheard of before shuttle.

The great observatory Hubble, dazzles with breathtaking images of the universe and its ability to see galaxies born nearly at the dawn of time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shuttle has arrived on-board Atlantis with the arm.

ZARRELLA: Hubble was launched, repaired and serviced from shuttle. Every major building block of the football field-long space station was carried up and assembled from shuttle.

Before becoming NASA's head man, Charlie Bolden was an astronaut. He flew four shuttle flights, including the Hubble launch.

BOLDEN: The International Space Station is the crowning jewel of the shuttle program. It represents the culmination. It's the perfect ending for the shuttle program.

ZARRELLA: And it did something else. Before the shuttle, not a single woman or person of color had flown on a U.S. spacecraft.

BOLDEN: My going to space -- you know, if I want to get personal -- or women going to space would have never occurred without the space shuttle.

ZARRELLA: The shuttle was proclaimed and sold as a vehicle that could fly 25 or 30 times a year. It never did.

Jeff Greason was on President Obama's Blue Ribbon Committee that laid out pathways for future U.S. space exploration.

JEFF GREASON, PRESIDENT OBAMA'S BLUE RIBBON PANEL EXAMINING ALTERNATIVES FOR HUMAN SPACE EXPLORATION: If you think the goal was develop low-cost reliable space transportation in that it was not successful.

ZARRELLA: And it never produced revolutionary, scientific or medical breakthroughs.

In the early years, NASA pushed to prove shuttles could fly often. The weather was often a problem. No more so than on a brutally cold January morning in 1986.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: It all boiled down to it was human arrogance. The top management was not listening to the engineers on the line.

ZARRELLA: Warnings that it was too cold to launch were ignored.

Challenger exploded less than two minutes into flight when a joint in one of the boosters compromised by the frigid temperature failed. The shuttle would never be viewed again as the answer to inexpensive safe access to space.

(On camera): This is the Altar?


ZARRELLA: All right. You have a lot of explaining to do. Coors can. The Lite can.

ONIZUKA: The baseball.

ZARRELLA: The baseball.

ONIZUKA: He played a lot of ball.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Lorna Onizuka rarely talks publicly about what happened in the years since. Her husband, Ellison Onizuka, was 1 of the 7 on board Challenger.

ONIZUKA: El and I understood that, you know, something could happen. We just kind of hoped that it never would.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Obviously he was OK with accepting the risk.

ONIZUKA: He did. He was very well prepared for it.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Lorna's deepest heartache was for her two daughters.

ONIZUKA: She came in and she said, "I want you to die today." And I was like really stunned and before I could say anything, she said, but you can come alive again on Tuesday. I don't know what day it was. But -- so I said, why? And she said because I need to ask daddy some things, and then he can be dead again and you can come alive. But I have to ask him some things.

ZARRELLA (on camera): Wow.

(Voice-over): Lorna didn't go to shuttle launches for five years after the accident. Since then, she's been to nearly all of them. It is sad, she says, to see it end.

(On camera): You think it was worth it?

ONIZUKA: Yes, I do. I think a lot of it is because I think El would have thought it was worth it. ZARRELLA (voice-over): The shuttle program came back from Challenger and came back again from Columbia. Lost reentering the atmosphere. Debris was scattered across north Texas. And although tarnished, the shuttle has been America's only way to put humans in space.

BOLDEN: I defy anybody -- and I will argue with my Apollo comrades -- the accomplishments, the achievements, the record of performance, the spin-offs, the capabilities that have been developed, what we did in shuttle over 30 years dwarfed what was done in the Apollo era.

CERNAN: We can build spacecraft. We can build hardware. We can build boosters. But there's no goal. There's no mission. We are wandering in the desert in space today, period.

ZARRELLA: So why now? Why call it quits now?

From the time of its inception 40 years ago, until the shuttles are retired, the program will have cost the American taxpayers just shy of $115 billion. That's less than $4 billion a year. A drop, if that, in the federal budget. Still, the problem is money.

NORM AUGUSTINE, SPACEFLIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: There's just not enough money at NASA to continue the existing programs and start a new program at the same time.

ZARRELLA: But its ending now leaves a gaping hole.

BOLDEN: The nation was not very disciplined in developing the replacement for shuttle so that we wouldn't find ourselves where we are at now.

ZARRELLA: Where we are right now is relying on the Russians to ferry our astronauts to and from the space station at a cost of $63 million a seat.

CERNAN: We're ceding that leadership back to the same people by a different name. They're Russians today. They were Soviets then. But we're saying, OK, here it is, we're giving it back to you.

ZARRELLA: Once Atlantis lands bringing the shuttle program to a close, there's no other choice until commercial space companies are ready. That's more than three years away, and NASA won't have its own new rocket ready until at least 2016. But there's no turning back.

(On camera): Was it time?

BOLDEN: Yes, it was time. And it has been time for some time to phase out of shuttle and go back to exploration.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Whether you hated it or hailed it, whether you felt it a waste or worth it, the shuttle was an iconic flying machine that symbolized America's inspiration and ingenuity.


ZARRELLA: This is the crew hatch to the shuttle Discovery. She made 39 trips to space. I'll tell you inside with one of her commanders coming up.



ZARRELLA (on camera): I never thought this would happen, an opportunity to actually step inside of the space shuttle, if I can get in. I know most of the astronauts are a little bit smaller than I am.

This is great, man. Wow.

BOB CABANA, KENNEDY SPACE CENTER DIRECTOR: Welcome aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

ZARRELLA: Thank you, commander.

CABANA: So we're on the mid-deck right now.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): These days, Bob Cabana runs the Kennedy Space Center. Before that, he just happened to be an astronaut. Flew in space four times, twice as pilot, twice as commander. His first two trips, he was pilot of Discovery. He knows every inch.

(On camera): How many seated on the mid-deck?

CABANA: Well, if you're flying a crew of seven, you've got three folks down here. So one here and two more here.


(Voice-over): Discovery is the first vehicle being retired. When all the clean-up is done, stuff like freon, ammonia, cryogenics and pyrotechnics, she'll be turned over to the Smithsonian.

Not easy, says Stephanie Stilson. I caught up with her earlier in the day.

STEPHANIE STILSON, KENNEDY SPACE CENTER FLOW DIRECTOR: There's not a single person at Kennedy Space Center that didn't want to continue to fly the shuttles.

ZARRELLA: For 11 years her job as flow director was to make sure Discovery was ready to fly. Her job now, make sure Discovery is museum ready.

STILSON: And we do think of Discovery as a family member. We've taken care of her for all these years and it's going to be hard for many people to realize that we're no longer responsible for that, that someone else has to do that for us. So it's going to be a big change for some folks.

ZARRELLA: Stilson always dreamed of being a launch director. No woman has ever held that job. But for now, NASA has nothing for her to launch. Back on-board --

CABANA: Let's go take the deck and let's go to the ear lock. ZARRELLA (on camera): Yes, let's go. Sure. We'll take a look at the ear lock.

(Voice-over): Crawl about 12 feet.

(On camera): I'm going to drag these cables in, too.

(Voice-over): On the other end is the shuttle's cargo bay, spacious enough to hold a school bus. Over the 39 flights of Discovery, dozens of astronauts in space suits have been at this exact vantage point waiting to step out to repair a satellite or build the space station.

CABANA: Grab the hand-hold here and then just keep coming, put a hand up here, and you can pull yourself right on up.

ZARRELLA: We're climbing the ladder to the flight deck. In the weightlessness of space you'd just float your way up. I'm allowed the privilege of the commander seat.

(On camera): There's a lot of -- a lot of buttons to see here. I guess I shouldn't touch.

CABANA: John, here we are on the flight deck of Discovery. The commander sits in the left seat.


CABANA: The pilot sits in the right seat.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): The windows are covered with sun shields.

CABANA: There's three window panes. There's a pressure pain, a protective pane and a thermal pane.

ZARRELLA (on camera): So there's three layers of glass.

CABANA: And about this thick.

ZARRELLA: Each one?

CABANA: Each one, yes. And you know how you get rock chips in your star bursts in your windshield?


CABANA: Everyone of my flights I've had, you know, micrometeorite dings on that outer pane.

ZARRELLA: The outer one.

CABANA: You know, from something hitting it.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Sitting here, Cabana is reminded of a lift-off on Endeavour.

CABANA: The whole ascend. I mean, wow, what a ride. Just the sense of speed and acceleration.

OK. There's the main engine start. We're seeing the (INAUDIBLE). Lot of shaking and vibrating.

You're pushed back in your seat and the last minute, you know, you hit that 3G acceleration again. And your 3Gs and it's hard to breathe and all of a sudden you hit MICO and it's like, and you come forward in your seat like that.

You really know you're going to space.

I tell you, though, on my first flight I did not look out the windows at all. I was staring right at the main engine.

ZARRELLA: And you're the pilot. You were sitting right there.

CABANA: Right here. And I was making sure that everything was working the way it was supposed to work. I was not looking out the window. I have to admit, all my flights were unique. And they were all special. It's kind of like asking which one of your kids is your favorite? But I think that last flight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have booster ignition and lift-off of the space shuttle Endeavour with the first American element of the International Space Station.

CABANA: Being able to go inside the space station for the first time --

It's unbelievable. If you got live coverage we'll get the (INAUDIBLE) stirring around in.

ZARRELLA: So many people have tried to describe what it's like when you're on -- on re-entering. What you're seeing coming back.

CABANA: What I remember is just this orange-white glow out the middle. Little pieces of something sparks just kind of like flying by. And I just remember when we landed I did not want to get out of the commander seat. I mean they asked if it's trying to get me out, you know, and it's like this is my spaceship, you can't have it. You know, I just -- I didn't want it to end. You know? I just wanted it to go on. It was great.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): And now it really has.

Coming up. The booster ignites, the flame pours from its nozzle. The end of an era is here.


ZARRELLA: The train rolls south down Florida's East Coast. It passes crossings at St. Augustine, Flagler Beach, Daytona, New Smyrna. Under the protective tarps, the last space shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Destination, the Kennedy Space Center.

On board, people who build them, launch them, and ride them to space. All that is clear is uncertainty.

(On camera): What do you do when the shuttle stops flying, Mike?

MIKE LEINBACH, SHUTTLE LAUNCH DIRECTOR: Well, let's see. I'm the launch director and there will be no launches to direct. And so I don't really know.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): In both years and miles, the end of the line is much, much closer now.

Three months earlier, a couple thousand miles from Florida, a transporter moved slowly through the falling snow. It is carrying one of those last massive booster segments to the rail yard 20 miles away. Without the boosters, space shuttles could not fly.

This is Promontory, Utah, north of Salt Lake City, home to ATK Aerospace Systems. For 37 years, they have been test in testing --

PHIL JEPPSEN, ATK AERO SPACE SYSTEMS: OK, what we're going to do on this move is (INAUDIBLE) in 180 degrees.

ZARRELLA: -- and building the shuttle's solid rocket boosters here.

JEPPSEN: This is a typical RFM space shuttle segment.

ZARRELLA: For 34 of those years, Phil Jeppsen says he's touched the heavens with each booster he helped build.

(On camera): Can you imagine you spent your -- I mean a good portion of your adult life building components for a space vehicle.

JEPPSEN: Yes. But it's been the most wonderful experience that I've really had. This has been my life since I was 21.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): And a way of life passed from generation to generation.

JEPPSEN: We spent a period of about 50 years between my father hired on in 1959, retiring in 1990. I came out like I told you in '77 and it's just been our livelihood. I have two boys now that are currently employed here.

ZARRELLA: There are many here just like Phil Jeppsen. The ride has been good but it's over. They know it. Yet they press ahead with their work. As each of the last booster segments is loaded on the transporters, the future becomes more uncertain. Where do they go from here? What do they do next?

In the past two years, 2100 people have been laid off, 45 percent of the workforce. They've seen tough times here before.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lift-off of the 25th space shuttle mission.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flight controller here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.

ZARRELLA: 1986, a failed seal in one of the boosters built here led to the accident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This place mourned, just like anybody else. It was a part of us and it was a tough moment. With the public opinion even a little sour, we persevered and we went through the redesign and we have produced reliable motors for the past 20 years. Totally reliable.

ZARRELLA (on camera): This is the forward segment we're looking at?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Forward segment. Yes.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Jeff Kent (ph) and his son, Ryan, both work here. Uncertainty is frightening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whether I have to go to another industry, if I've got to go move out of state, those type of things. That's what goes through my mind as we finish this up, is the anxiety for the future.

ZARRELLA: For Ryan's dad, the anxiety is not just for himself and his son. It doesn't sit well -- not at all -- that shuttle is ending and there's nothing to replace it. It doesn't sit well -- not at all -- that for at least a few years the U.S. will have to rely on someone else's rocket to get to the space station.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At least in my mind, you would think that we would want to employ our people rather than give Russia or other people the opportunity to take our astronauts in space. We need jobs.

ZARRELLA: The job in Promontory is not quite over. A solid rocket booster, 126 feet long, and 12 feet in diameter, sits in a test stand. In a bunker not far away, the team runs through a countdown rehearsal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shuttle has control of the sequencer?

ZARRELLA: The booster is identical to the ones being shipped to the space center.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T-minus 20 minutes.

ZARRELLA: The test will ensure the manufacturing processes are absolutely perfect. This will be the 52nd test since 1977. Also the last.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The countdown is proceeding.

ZARRELLA: The event is historic. Two days later on a mild February morning, thousands of people with their children and their cameras have come to watch. The booster ignites. The flame throws from its nozzle.

In two minutes, it's done. Nearly four decades of building shuttle boosters is over.

The ride down Florida's East Coast is nearly over, too. The train is not far from the Kennedy Space Center. Reality is difficult to digest. HARRY REED, ATK BOOSTER PROGRAM DIRECTOR: Mostly, I feel so very lucky for just an ordinary guy like myself to have been lucky enough to participate in something like this. It's been real special.

ZARRELLA: In both years and miles, the end of the line is now much, much closer.

(On camera): So where is NASA going next? Well, while the destination may still be unclear, the training has already begun right here in the waters of the Florida Keys.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Don Lemon live at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta.

Here are your headlines.

The Casey Anthony murder trial will continue Monday with rebuttal arguments from the prosecution. Both prosecution and defense presented closing arguments today attacking each other's case but then it got personal and the judge threatened to throw both lawyers out of the courtroom.

We'll have a special hour on the trial tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern right on CNN.

An apology from Exxon-Mobil today after as much as 42,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into Montana's Yellowstone River. Exxon-Mobil is cleaning the spill and the breached pipeline has been shut down. It started leaking near the town of Laurel. About 200 people were evacuated when the spill was discovered but they're now back in their homes.

I'm Don Lemon at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta. Now back to "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT." See you at 10:00 p.m.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Surrounded by the blackness of deep space, 117 million miles from earth, is the asteroid Vesta. Images captured by a NASA probe. In the not-too-distant future, U.S. astronauts could be looking out their window at a sight just like this.

MIKE GERNHARDT, ASTRONAUT: I can either float along it, or I can have a tether to me, and then I can sample rocks, I can chip a rock.

ZARRELLA: Astronaut Mike Gernhardt and his team are working on the kinds of equipment and techniques they'll need for human exploration of an asteroid as early as 2025. Before either the moon or Mars.

GERNHARDT: What we're doing is building a simulated asteroid underwater.

ZARRELLA: And this is not some high-tech laboratory. It's Key Largo, Florida. And because money is tight --

GERNHARDT: We're all about being cost effecter. You know, a Glad bag type of thing.

ZARRELLA: Not everything they're developing is some fancy state-of- the-art widget.

GERNHARDT: This is a soil collection device.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a lot different things on earth that you want to pick up without touching.

ZARRELLA: For instance, this quite valuable earth-tested device.

(On camera): What you're saying is that a pooper-scooper could be used on an asteroid and work perfectly.

GERNHARDT: A specified version of a scooper could be used to scoop soil on an asteroid, yes.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): So now you've got the tools. How do you know they'll work?

Just go five miles offshore and jump in. Beneath the surface at the site of an undersea habitat called Aquarius, they have created an asteroid proving ground in the near weightless environment of water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We work there, we live there, we can put anchors, we build a rock wall, like a climbing wall. We can climb up that wall in zero gravity.

ZARRELLA: With the shuttle era over, NASA is going back to going outward. What most everyone agrees it does best. An asteroid could be the first stop, a baby step. Because there's no gravity and an asteroid would be much closer, it's simply an easier first mission than Mars.

(On camera); So once you get to Mars or the moon or an asteroid, how are you going to get around? Well, how about this? A multi-mission space exploration vehicle.

(Voice-over): At Houston's Johnson Space Center, Gernhardt's team is developing a vehicle that can go to any destination. Putting it through its phases. On simulated heavenly surfaces.

(On camera): And we're going down to the crater right now.

GERNHARDT: Going down on the crater now. Hang on.

ZARRELLA: This is great. I bet you want to be driving, don't you, that first flight?

GERNHARDT: I do. That's always been my dream.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): In Gernhardt's vision, astronauts would live and work for up to two weeks in this vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got about two wheels on the ground.

ZARRELLA: Far more efficient he says than the old Apollo moon buggies.

GERNHARDT: Instead of having to come home every night, you just sleep in the vehicle.

ZARRELLA (on camera): So we're coming up now on the Mars yard. Appropriately named.

GERNHARDT: You'll see here in a second just how well this vehicle can negotiate the rough terrain.

ZARRELLA: Wow. Look, there's a cameraman on Mars ahead of us. How did he get there? Alien life.

(Voice-over): In five years, Gernhardt hopes to see his vehicle attached to the space station's robotic arm with astronauts living in it and spacewalking from it. A good test. But before it can go any further out, like to an asteroid, there's one big problem -- getting it there.

The space shuttle won't do the trick. It wasn't designed for deep space missions and it's simply not safe enough.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden was a shuttle commander.

BOLDEN: Crazy people like me, we'll do anything and we'll fly anything. But in order to expand the capability to bring more people in to spaceflight, we needed a vehicle that had a capability for crews to escape.

ZARRELLA: The new crew vehicle, bigger than the old Apollo capsules, is already in the works. It will be, NASA says, ten times safer than a shuttle. Putting it on top of the rocket, not on the side, gives the astronauts a better chance of surviving an accident. The escape system is already being tested.

But to get the crew and al of their supplies for a long journey out of the atmosphere, the space agency needs a powerful heavy-lift rocket. It's supposed to be ready by 2016. The first test vehicle might look a bit like this, because it's going to be built out of a lot of shuttle hardware, including a main fuel tank and reusable boosters that splash down in the Atlantic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There it is, straight out.

ZARRELLA: Are recovered by divers and hauled back to shore.

GREASON: Let's just say it's a rocket that I have difficulty finding the mission for.

ZARRELLA: Jeff Greason was a member of President Obama's Blue Ribbon Committee on the future of exploration. Greason worries it may never go anywhere.

GREASON: It was a very expensive thing for NASA to maintain. And the result of that as I see it is that if NASA does successfully develop this launch vehicle, there will be no budget to do anything with it. AUGUSTINE: It's a matter of national priority.

ZARRELLA: Norm Augustine chaired the Obama committee. He says if we don't see this through --

AUGUSTINE: China will try to do something very dramatic. India will. Others will. Perhaps the Russians. And we will be left behind.

ZARRELLA: China, Augustine says, is moving ahead at lightning speed developing its space program. The man commanding the last shuttle flight worries, too. Talk of trips back to the moon and on to Mars have always been, well, just talk.

FERGUSON: Mars is always 20 years in the future. It's been 20 years in the future for the last 30 years. I'd like to see how committed we are this time.

ZARRELLA (on camera): I'm not doing too bad.

GERNHARDT: No, you did good.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Back at the rock yard in Houston, I wasn't going to let an opportunity to drive Mike Gernhardt's vehicle pass me by.

GERNHARDT: It gets a whole panorama.

ZARRELLA (on camera): That's amazing. I'm going to drive it just a little bit further because this is as close as I'm going ever going to get.

(Voice-over): If America's priorities don't include space, it may be the only opportunity any of us get.

Coming up, is it time for commercial space?

ELON MUSK, SPACEX PRESIDENT: We want to see a future where we are exploring the stars, where we're going to other planets, where we're doing the great things that we read about in science fiction and in the movies.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two --

ZARRELLA (voice-over): There are many amongst us who are visionaries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have lift-off of the Falcon 9.

ZARRELLA: Who are pioneers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Falcon 9 is clear at the tower.

ZARRELLA: Who are dreamers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon is in orbit.

ZARRELLA: But only a handful with deep enough pockets to do what only governments have done before. Venture off this planet.

SIR RICHARD BRANSON, VIRGIN GALACTIC: People used to say to me, look, it would be impossible to go with your own spaceship and your own spaceship company and be able to take people into space. And you know that's the kind of challenge that I love to sort of prove them wrong.

MUSK: We want to see a future where we are exploring the stars, where we're going to other planets, where we're doing the great things that we read about in science fiction and in the movies.

ZARRELLA: Elon Musk runs SpaceX. Richard Branson heads Virgin Galactic. Both are using their considerable wealth to back bold attempts to make space travel as routine as boarding an airplane.

MUSK: We want to make space accessible to everyone. I mean that's a revolutionary change but it's incredibly exciting.

ZARRELLA: There are several companies -- some big, some small -- who see, as NASA moves on to distant planets, that weightless region just above the atmosphere, just out of reach right now, becoming quite possibly a good investment.

GEORGE MUSSER, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MAGAZINE: NASA's still in there, still going to develop a heavy-lift rocket. But we've also got this hopefully flowering of private spaceflight and that's what's going to get us the Hiltons and Hertz Rent-a-Cars and whatever in orbit.

ZARRELLA: SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are on the verge of not just opening --


ZARRELLA: -- but stepping through that door to the future.

Southeast of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande River, not part from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, you come to a place down the end of a long two-lane road. Here in the middle of nowhere, under a high blue sky, is space port America.

CHRIS ANDERSON, NEW MEXICO SPACE PORT: I always say it's where old frontier meets the new frontier.

ZARRELLA: Chris Anderson is executive director of the New Mexico Space Port. To build the world's first commercial space port nestled between the San Andreas and the Cabeous Mountains, taxpayers anted up $207 million. A leap of faith.

ANDERSON: Well, there's always risk in great opportunity. So there is a risk but I see more opportunity out there. I think, again, the time is right for commercial space.

ZARRELLA: The centerpiece is the terminal hangar facility. The anchor tenant -- Branson's Virgin Galactic company. The hangar will be home to Virgin's mother ships and spaceships. A year-and-a-half from now, if all the test flights go well, a mothership will take off down this runway, climb the 50,000 feet and release a space plane tuck beneath it.

The six civilian astronauts and two pilots will climb to 350,000 feet and experience weightlessness for four minutes. The price tag for the round trip, $200,000. Branson and his family hold the first tickets.

BRANSON: We've got extensive tests over the next 15 months before, you know, myself and my children go into space and my wife won't forgive me if I don't bring the kids back.

ZARRELLA: Branson alludes to the risk. His spaceship employs unique technology as it descends back to earth, the tail section rotates to a 65-degree angle, creating drag and slowing the vehicle. But that word risk creeps in to every conversation about the retirement of shuttle and the commercialization of space. There is no denying it, no getting away from it.

FERGUSON: I consider it a risk. You know with big risks, it's like investments. Come big rewards. We could also lose.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Communications with Columbia were lost at about 8:00 a.m. Central time.

ZARRELLA: Risk. You just accept it.

MUSK: Can you imagine how much difficulty people went through and how scared they were in the transition from horses to cars? But you got to make these transitions. Otherwise society doesn't move forward.

ZARRELLA: So far, Musk's SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has performed well. On the last test, the rocket put a spacecraft called Dragon into orbit. The capsule landed back in the Pacific. It was the first time anyone other than a government had successfully orbited a spacecraft and returned it to earth.

MUSK: We designed this to be super tough. You can beat the snot out of it and it will still work.

ZARRELLA: Next year Musk hopes to begin carrying cargo to the International Space Station. Eventually astronauts, a commercial company, replacing the space shuttle. But unless it's safe, NASA's administrator says no U.S. astronaut will be on board.

BOLDEN: I cannot allow them to put us in jeopardy by not focusing on crew safety and the like. That's my job.

ZARRELLA: The stakes are high. There is no turning back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please welcome, the future of space shuttle.

ZARRELLA: With the shuttle retired and astronauts left to riding Russian space ships, NASA is counting on commercial companies to get it right, make it work. And the more who make it work, the more affordable it will become. BRANSON: That's the end of a particular era, and it's up to individuals like myself, if you're in a position to be able to achieve wonderful things, to -- you know not to waste that position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lift-off of the Falcon 9.

ZARRELLA: When we return, saying good-bye to an American icon.

BOLDEN: I will be as proud as anybody there at the SLF when we land. This is hard.


ZARRELLA: April 12th, 1981. For astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, this was finally the day. They would be the first to fly it to space. The new Space Transportation System, STS, called the shuttle, had seen its share of development problems and delays.

ROBERT CRIPPEN, FIRST SHUTTLE PILOT: Those tiles kept flying off. The engines kept blowing up.


CRIPPEN: Before it ever flew. John and I thought it'd be a good idea to fix those.

ZARRELLA: Young was the veteran having flown twice in the Gemini program and twice on Apollo. Walking and riding on the moon during Apollo 16, Crippen was the rookie.

CRIPPEN: It was only when we got inside after minute that I looked at John and said, I think we're really going to do it. That's when my heart rate went up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we've gone from main engine start.

CRIPPEN: The first stage, 8.5 minutes while you're under thrust goes by so fast. On my first flight my eyes were like saucers so that seemed like about 15 seconds.

ZARRELLA (on camera): John, your heart rate hardly went up at all, but Bob's went up to about 130 on a second.

CRIPPEN: I was excited.

YOUNG: I was bored to tears.

ZARRELLA: Were you confident that you guys were going to get back OK?

YOUNG: Well, we had ejection seats. If things went really south, we could jump out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger Columbia on the nice ride. You're lofting a little bit. You'll probably be a slightly high staging. CRIPPEN: We were doing lots of stuff so we didn't really have time to concentrate too much on -- hey, finally did it. But we did take a moment every now and then to look out the window and enjoy it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Columbia Houston, you guys did so good, we're going for let you stay up there for a couple days. You're go for an orbit.

CRIPPEN: We managed to fly the whole planned mission. Nothing got cut short and everything worked fine.

YOUNG: Everything worked. That was amazing part. Especially on re- entry, we didn't get burned up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mach 9th at 9,700 feet per second.

YOUNG: When we come back, I said --

What a way to come back to California.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): It had been two days, six hours and 20 minutes since one million people crowded into Titus Ville, Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral for the launch. Now nearly 30 years later, half a million people staked out their spots in the same places.

Among them, Bobby Tenpin (ph). He was 18 when his uncle, an aerospace company employee, brought him to see Crippen and Young lift-off. Now he was back.

BOBBY TENPIN: You know this is the end of long era. A decades-long era. And there'll be nothing like it again.

ZARRELLA: From Georgia, Bobby brought his kids this time. Spencer is 10.

SPENCER, BOBBY TENPIN'S SON: It's going to be awesome.

ZARRELLA: Brier, 12.

BRIER, BOBBY TENPIN'S DAUGHTER: From here it's going to be a little dot going in the sky.

SPENCER: It's going to be big, Brier.

BRIER: Maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The SS-133 mission will be the final mission for Discovery.

ZARRELLA: On a warm February afternoon, Discovery was about to make its final flight. History to be witnessed.

TENPIN: I wake them up in the middle of the night, take them out into the middle of the country to look at asteroid and meteor showers, and I want them to see the space shuttle take off. I've seen them and I want them to have the same opportunity. ZARRELLA: People pass the time playing games. Gazing through binoculars, reading, waiting.

TENPIN: We have how many minutes?

SPENCER: Thirty-five.

ZARRELLA: They're so close. What could go wrong now? Then, Murphy's Law struck.

TENPIN: There's a problem with a computer. They got to work through the problem. Got 20 minutes to get the problem fixed.

SPENCER: Oh, great.

TENPIN: Got to see it. The kids got to see it.

ZARRELLA: They did. NASA resolved the problem.

TENPIN: Twenty seconds, 20 seconds.

ZARRELLA: Discovery lifted off.

TENPIN: There it goes. Go. Go. Go.

ZARRELLA: For the thousands here, a moment etched in their collective memories.

TENPIN: Look at it. Oh, that's so cool.

ZARRELLA: A moment to be savored, analyzed.

SPENCER: I thought it would be a little louder.

ZARRELLA: And of course, matured over time.

ONIZUKA: I feel very lucky.

ZARRELLA: For Lorna Onizuka, with every launch, there is a nod to the heavens and her husband, Ellison, who died on Challenger. He accepted that risk and paid the price.

ONIZUKA: I want to thank him for watching over these guys in the years since, because I think he does. Shares their pride, shares their excitement, shares their glory. Just from a different angle.

ZARRELLA: The shuttle program has, and will be, celebrated, debated and critiqued. Did it serve its purpose? Was it worth the cost in both money and lives?

When Atlantis comes home, the 135th mission, when the wheels stop, it will become part of history.

ALVIN DREW, SHUTTLE ASTRONAUT: There's going to be a nostalgia for the shuttle. Were we ever that audacious to go build spacecraft to do things like that? BOLDEN: I will be as proud as anybody there at the SLF when we land. This is hard. I shed tears of joy. We have done what I wanted to do. We have safely flown out of the shuttle.

FERGUSON: It will be at that moment when it's finally over that you'll be able to exhale, take a breath, understand the significance of the moment, that will probably take a little while to get me out of the shuttle. But I'm bound and determined to be the last one out.