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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Space Shuttle "Atlantis," The Final Mission

Aired July 8, 2011 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Perfect. Well, that does it for us. CNN's special coverage of the shuttle "Atlantis" launch starts right now.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Hello from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I'm Anderson Cooper. Behind me a launch pad 39-A, about 3 miles away, the space shuttle "Atlantis" and its crew of four are prepared for liftoff just a little less than one hour from now.

STS-135 will be the last mission for NASA's shuttle program. The 135th mission, but as we celebrate this historic launch, let's look at how we got here.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): "Atlantis" and the crew of four are ready to make history minutes from now with the last liftoff of a U.S. space shuttle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will be at this moment when it is finally over that you will be able to exhale, take a breath, and understand the significance of the moment.

COOPER: But Americans have been fascinated with space exploration for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon.

COOPER: The first generation of astronauts became our national heroes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One giant leap for mankind.

COOPER: The mission that followed broke down barriers on earth and beyond. NASA made the unimaginable happen before our very eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Four return attempts and not reporting any REF at this time.

COOPER: Battles of red tape and unspeakable tragedy may have marred the program, but Americans feel pride and patriotism when we hear the countdown.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Zero and lift off.

COOPER: And hope.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hope to become an astronaut.

COOPER: Hope that will not hopefully end after this, the final launch.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: And we will talk about what the future holds for the U.S. space program in our program this morning, but in the next hour, the excitement is building toward liftoff and I have tell you it is very exciting here.

As many as a million people are believed to have gathered to watch this liftoff in person. They want to see history happening. They want to see the last space shuttle launching off.

We have also learned that President Obama will be making a statement at some point within this next hour. We, of course, will bring that to you live. That will be from the Rose Garden on this morning's jobs report. We will carry that live when it happens.

I want to bring in my colleague John Zarrella who has covered a lot. How many for you?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Between 75 and 80 launches.

COOPER: But this one, historic is the most overused word today, so we will try to avoid using it, but this is it. This is the final launch and this crew, the final four.

ZARRELLA: Yes, 30 years they have been flying shuttles, and my boys have never known anything else, but space shuttles as many people have out here.

COOPER: What is going on right now, because we see the countdown clock behind us?

ZARRELLA: There is a hold coming up in there, and that is not the real time.

COOPER: Right, you shouldn't think, you see 28 minutes on that, but don't think that that means it is happening in 28 minutes.

ZARRELLA: They take it down to 20 and they'll stop, and then down to 9 again and stop. So they're built in holds. They can go over things to make sure things are going OK.

Right now, Rick Stirka (ph), we heard that flying overhead in the shuttle training aircraft checking the weather, which is the big issue right now is this cloud cover we see.

But you know, in 1988, the first flight after the "Challenger" accident, the weather was like this, the sky opened up and they got "Discovery" off of the ground.

COOPER: And last night, I went to bed around 2 a.m. They were saying 70 percent chance of this being canceled, but it looks like the sky is cleared certainly. It is not raining right now.

ZARRELLA: They have a shot, and that is why they're going through with this count, but the astronauts who are on board, the four member crew --

COOPER: They fueled up starting around 2:00 a.m.

ZARRELLA: At 2:00 a.m., it takes about 4 hours to get the half a million gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen into the main tank here.

So they're all ready to go. They did have to change the liquid oxygen pump, not a big deal. That's done and the vehicle is in perfect shape. It's just the weather right now, Anderson.

COOPER: Let's check in - we're going to check the weather in a moment, but first let's go to Ed Lavandera. He is in mission control in Houston. Ed, at this point, it's a go?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It sounds like it. We've heard throughout the morning here since we've been here. The officials here in NASA officials here that are in charge of --

COOPER: Can you hear me?

LAVANDERA: Yes, I can hear you, Anderson. Can you hear me?

COOPER: Yes, I got you. Sorry, Ed. Go ahead.

LAVANDERA: So this is mission control and we will take you down into the middle bank that you can see there with the gentleman with the dark hair there with the back to us that is Richard Jones. He is the flight director. He is the man that will be making the call on whether or not "Atlantis" lifts off.

It has been a very calm morning here. We have seen a lot of these folks monitoring the satellite images that they are getting of the weather in the area. There have been a lot of smiles in this room, very laid back.

They have been here for many hours monitoring all of the data that's coming in, and making sure that everything is what needs to be in place to make all of this happen. So, this is mission control once that "Atlantis" is up in space. They will be manned 24/7, and this is an emotional moment for the folks here in the Houston area that have been a part of the space shuttle program for all three decades.

So many of the people - some of the people in this room will be losing jobs after this space shuttle program ends. There are a lot of people watching this closely. An emotional moment, but their number one goal right here today is making sure that "Atlantis" gets up safely.

And that the crew gets up safely and returns back to earth safely, so it is not a moment to kind of focus for them on what is going on with the space shuttle program, and just how emotional this moment will be.

But you can imagine when "Atlantis" returns safely back to earth that it will be emotional moment for all of the people in this room who are working to get "Atlantis" off of the ground. Anderson --

COOPER: Yes, even though there are only four people on board the "Atlantis" this morning, and that is a small crew, normally there's more than that. There's not going to be any space walks on this one because they're just four people.

But remember, there are thousands of people standing behind those four astronauts. Thousands of people who had been working for years to make this a reality, and many of them will be losing their job. And also this obviously is affecting the surrounding areas around here in Florida around the Kennedy Space Center.

Let's check in with Chad Myers who's at the Kennedy Space Center. He's at the Visitor Complex. Chad, the weather seems to be holding, seems to be holding at this point.

OK. We are obviously having audio problems with him. And over to Carol Costello, she is over at Port Canaveral where a lot of people have gathered to watch the viewing.

Carol, there are some reports as many as a million people may have gathered. What is the mood like there?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is joyous, Anderson. I know it is an emotional day for NASA, but people could not be happier here. I'm off of 528 on a patch of land in Port Canaveral, but what a view. Take a look.

Over my shoulder, you can actually see, or at least I can with my naked eye the space shuttle, itself, and it is a little tiny thing in the distance, but when takes off, you will see the bright lights, the smoke in sky and probably the rumbling on the ground.

But what makes this sight so attractive is take a look over here at this big vehicle. Inside amateur radio guys, they have a line hooked into NASA control so that the people out here can actually hear the countdown from NASA. They're going to pipe it out to the crowd. And the crowd just loves it.

I'm telling you, Anderson, people from all over the country are here. I have talked to people from Missouri, from Tennessee, Kentucky. Some people over there from Canada, we're going to talk to them a little later. They have been camped out on this beach for a couple of days now.

They actually arrived three days ago, kind of scoped out the area, and centered on this spot. They have been sitting on beach chairs on the water line there for about 48 hours now.

So they are ready for the launch to go off. I was so excited to hear from Chad Meyers so I could share with the crowd with some possible good news, because believe me, Anderson, they want that thing to take off this afternoon.

COOPER: Yes, I can tell you that everybody here certainly wants to see that, and people around the world want to see that. Carol, appreciate that, and we will check in with Chad as soon as we get his audio fixed.

Right now, the NASA test director is doing final briefings with the launch team. They enter a 10-minute hold at T-minus 20, as John Zarrella mentioned a few moments ago while those checks happen. Now the countdown resumes at 21 past the hour.

And the computers on board "Atlantis" switch to launch mode. Now when we get to 32 past the hour, and you will see the countdown clock stop again at T-minus 9 minutes. That allows for well over half hour while management team make their final go/no go decision on the launch.

Assuming everything is a go and right now it seems, and at 11:17 Eastern time, the countdown resumes at T-9 minutes to launch, keeping on the crews been on board "Atlantis" for a few hours at this point, 11:19 the access arm will retract, 11:21 more systems start up including the auxiliary power units.

So that that's the checklist ahead of the launch, which is scheduled still for 11:26 a.m. this morning. We have much more ahead in the next two hours of our live coverage of the past and the future of NASA space program. We're live here from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We'll be right back in a moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): November 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launches the first satellite orbit into space, "Sputnik." Russia's new technology as seen as a threat to America and the U.S. forms its own space program. A year later, NASA is born. And that's another CNN top moment in space.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage of this historic last launch of the space shuttle, the space shuttle "Atlantis." We are here with our CNN's John Zarrella and honored to have astronaut Cady Coleman joining us. We're going to talk to her in just a moment.

But joining us on the phone is NASA administrator Charles Bolden who has called into us now. Administrator Bolden, right now everything looks good, yes?

CHARLES BOLDEN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, it is looking much better than it has all morning. So we are excited about getting off today.

COOPER: For you, what is this day like?

BOLDEN: You know, like any other launch date, but it is not. It is a very special day, and it is the last flight of "Atlantis," which is where I flew my last flight.

And it is the joyous day because it is the day in which we begin the next era of where we have been, and stand up with a commercial industry to -- have astronauts to the International Space Station.

COOPER: It is very hard to hear the administrator. Cady, for you, what this day like? I mean, you have spent an awful lot of time in space to know that this is the final flight?

CADY COLEMAN, ASTRONAUT: Well, every shuttle launch, every launch of a rocket that's got people on board. It's a big deal for people to leave the planet. So just in that, it is a big day for the launch of the space shuttle.

Because it's the last one, I think it makes us reflect on, you know, why does it make us feel like we just want to hold on and stop time and not let this happen?

I think it is because of what the shuttle has brought, people going to space is considered a bit normal now.

ZARRELLA: That is what is extraordinary, and John, you have covered so many of these. I mean, this is a workhorse, this shuttle. I mean, just the number of missions all these shuttles have flown.

It has become almost a routine and yet it is anything but routine. I mean, just the technology required to do this and the man hours and the work hours is extraordinary.

COLEMAN: It is complicated and yet, when it goes, it goes. You know, the people who do that work. I trust the people that do that work and when I am sitting on top of that shuttle, you know, I feel as safe as I could feel, and yet it is a risky business.

ZARRELLA: We had the administrator on and Charlie told me when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago that one of the greatest accomplishments of the shuttle program in his mind was the fact that it was this great social machine that it allowed women to fly.

It allowed people of color to fly. It allowed people from 16 different nations to fly. Before the shuttle program, not a single woman or person of color had flown, you know, in the U.S. vehicle, and that Charlie said was one of the great accomplishments of the shuttle program, and I think it is.

COOPER: As you said so many firsts, first woman in space, and first African-American in space, and first African-American woman in space. And for you, what is the moment you will remember most from the shuttles? COLEMAN: Well, you know, just I think that for a person to go to space, you know, actually for me, you think it is never actually going to happen to you.

And when I was up in space, and just getting to look out of the window the first time and it happened to be New England where I'm from and that image and realizing that you have worked for so long to be in this place.

And you are inside of the spaceship and you have great jobs to do, but this is where you as a person really are is in space, and to me, that is a great memory.

COOPER: Cady is going to stick around with us. We are also expecting President Obama speaking about the new jobs report, numbers that are just out. We'll bring that to you live.

That should be happening momentarily in the Rose Garden at the White House. Brooke Baldwin is standing by at the Kennedy Space Center at the Visitor Complex.

Brooke, obviously the excitement here is certainly building. There's got to be a huge excitement there as well.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Of course, the excitement here, Anderson, very much so palpable, and here is how the conversation goes down here when you meet someone, you say, where are you from, and what state, what country around the world?

Second question out of everyone's mouth, what do you know about the launch? Is it really going off at 11:26, and as you all have been reporting thus far fingers crossed, it is. And then talking to the Space Coast Tourism Bureau down here, they're estimating 1 million people down here watching this 135th and final launch of the space shuttle right here at the Kennedy Center Visitor Complex.

They are anticipating thousands of people and so there are numbers of lawns. People just sitting there in their lawn chairs, looking up at the sky and waiting for that shuttle to go off. One interesting fact here about this particular location, you see the mock-up shuttle over my shoulder, in two years and $100 million later.

That is where, if you want to come see the actual "Atlantis" space shuttle, it is going to be sitting here as part of the tourism industry. They are hoping that folks will continue to come down here. One final note in talking to some of the NASA employees, Anderson, a couple of days ago, the significance of this date, this is July 8th, add 12 days to the mission.

Hopefully, they will be landing on July 20th, look back 42 years, July 20th, 1969, that was the "Apollo 11" that was the lunar landing. So some significance with that date, July 20th. Anderson, back over to you.

COOPER: Brooke, we will check in with you shortly. Prior to this amount of time for the launch and still questions of the weather floating through the air, what is going through the mind of the astronaut and you are boarded and suited up, and what is going to go through your mind?

COLEMAN: Well, it depends on the crew. There are a few people singing. I flew with an Italian and people were singing. People are just pretty focused on the mission.

COOPER: Are you nervous? Because this crew like yourself have flown plenty times before and incredibly experienced spent a lot of time in space.

COLEMAN: You have made your decision whether you want to be sitting on that rocket long before you ever strapped in. So I think everybody is pretty ready to be there.

For me, my last mission on the shuttle was to launch the x-ray observatory. I was the lead specialist for doing that deploy and I was basically running through the procedures in my head making sure that when we are suddenly up in space 8-1/2 minutes later after launch, life changes.

And it actually comes a little bit bewildering. I think because your senses are interpreting a lot of strange things going on and everything is floating. So I just tried to make sure I really understood exactly how it going to proceed.

ZARRELLA: I was talking to Bob Cabana who is the head of the Kennedy Space Center, and of course, Cabana flew twice on "Discovery", twice on "Endeavour," commander twice and Cabana told me, while we were sitting in "Discovery" over here a couple of weeks ago, which was a neat thing. He said he fell asleep. He actually took a nap there.

COLEMAN: I was going to admit --

COOPER: Well, you fell asleep as well?

COLEMAN: Well, you know, on purpose, because I'm somebody, 10 minutes, and I'm a new person. I had a really big job and seven hours and 17 minutes after liftoff. As a mission specialist, I was down on the deck and I don't have a job unless something really happens, and the best use of my time was to get ready for orbit.

COOPER: And calm, cool, and collected. One more question before we go to the break, do you feel the power of the rocket when it is launching, and sometimes on the airplane, you don't get a sense of the power of the machine.

COLEMAN: Absolutely. It is just overwhelming and huge, and you think that after once you think you'd be ready for it the next time.

And it is just, you know, I have a bad example that I like to use, which is a movie called "Speed II" where there was a big cruise ship that it's only going four knots really slow, but just never stopping.

And that's what this is like except it's so much faster and it's so much more powerful, but once you leave the pad, you realize, you are not stopping until you get to space.

COOPER: It's also more well made and more interesting than "Speed Two." We will call Roger Ebert.

We'll check in with Chad Myers for the latest forecast coming up next and then from Kennedy and Nixon to Reagan to Obama, every White House administration in the last four decades has made a mark on the space program. We will take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Up next, the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley joins me for a look back on this remarkable day. First, another CNN top moment in space.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: April 12, 1981, "Columbia" becomes the very first U.S. shuttle launched into space. Its crew of two orbits the earth 36 times kicking off a new era of exploration, and that is another CNN "top moment in space."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back to the Kennedy Space Center where we are awaiting the launch of the "Atlantis," the final mission, the final four astronauts flying off into space.

Let's check in with Chad Myers to see if the weather is going to hold. Chad is at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Chad, it looks like the sun is maybe peeking out a little bit?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It is trying. As of 9:54 though, the last update that we've had from NASA, it was still a code red no- go because of weather, because of the clouds above the flight right now still too thick.

But let me show you what is coming. A much thinner cloud deck and you can even see the blue sky through here. We can even begin to see some shadows here as this cloud deck begins to move over the launch site, the clouds will get thinner.

The no-go I believe will turn to go and conditions red may go away just in time. I am telling you all the way through the morning, we were no-go the whole morning.

And yesterday, of course, with the rain, we were no-go, but today and this afternoon, it is looking better and better every minute especially with this sunshine coming out, Anderson.

COOPER: You better get the sun block there, Chad. We will continue to check with you in the two hours of coverage. I want to bring in presidential historian Doug Brinkley. He's in Austin, Texas this morning.

Doug, thanks so much for joining us. You are obviously a presidential historian. You covered the space program for a long time, but you are also writing a biography, the definitive biography of Walter Cronkite who obviously covered the space program for a long time.

So there is a lot to talk to you about this morning. Take us back to the late 1950s and early '60s, President Kennedy vowing to get Americans on the moon and in doing researched for this, I hadn't realized that it was really Richard Nixon who first talked about the idea of a space shuttle.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN, RICE UNIVERSITY: Well, that's right. Look, in the 1950s and 1957, a panic struck the United States because the Soviet Union put up a "Sputnik" satellite and we thought we were losing space to Russia in the Cold War.

And so we created under Eisenhower by '58 NASA and it started building. We had a lot of early failed attempts in the late 50s, but by the time John F. Kennedy came in, he prioritized NASA and he is the person who said in '61 that we're going to put a man on the moon at the end of the decade.

So he actually gave it a time slot. That made everybody work very quickly, and you started getting those historic launches for the whole nation would watch with TV, which was kind of a new thing, for live coverage would watch Allan Sheppard in 1961.

And by 1962, John Glenn's sub-orbit of earth just dominated national consciousness, and NASA became America's favorite pastime even during civil rights problems and the Vietnam War, people would still kind of rally together around their TV set to pull for "Mercury", "Gemini," and "Apollo."

COOPER: What do you think the end of the shuttle program means for the space program, but also for American innovation? Do you think the United States is going to fall behind other countries in terms of space, and where does the next great challenge lie?

BRINKLEY: Well, because as I mentioned this was the United States versus the Soviet Union in space, and we won the Cold War, the United States, you are seeing a lot more international focus, a lot more sharing between the United States and Russia, France, Israel, and other countries that are interested in space. One of the problems that I think that --

COOPER: But from now on, Doug, the fact that NASA is going to pay Russia in order to get astronauts on to the International Space Station. BRINKLEY: Yes, exactly. That is the new game. You know, when we went to the moon, and with "Apollo 11" and put the flag on, there were some people thought it should have been a U.N. flag and by putting the American flag on the moon, it was triumphantism particularly in an era when the Vietnam War was unhappy, but we did the American flag.

I think in the future, we're heading for something like Mars exploration, which will be so expensive. It has to be done from a global perspective with, you know, seven or eight of the world's largest countries pitching in.

The bottom line is that as you know covering the politics the money is not there, and that is a lot of the reasons why the shuttle program after 135 missions is being stopped. Remember, 135 space shuttle, and we can count the "Apollo" missions on our hands.

And it has been part of the problem NASA has had for public relations. When you do so many missions so well, you start to lose a lot of the public interest.

Today, the shuttle that we are getting to watch this final historic moment is not on page 1 of "The New York Times." It's on page 12. During "Apollo" each mission was front page news every day.

COOPER: And Walter Cronkite covered each one. You are writing a bio about him. What surprises you most about -- I mean, did he always love space from the time he was a kid?

BRINKLEY: Well, when he was a little boy growing up in Kansas City, he got very interested in aviation, and during World War II, he actually flew with the 8th Air Force on a bombing raid over Germany.

He was the United Press reporter. So he kind of claimed as a beat military aviation, but the 1950s when Edward R. Murrow went after Joe McCarthy, they went after him hard and Edward R. Murrow at CBS, you know, there was a great deal of tension there.

Cronkite had three babies to feed. He is the father of three kids so he kind of positioned himself into this pro-space advocacy, and he would come down to Cape Canaveral back then and there was only one motel. It was owned by a holocaust survivor from Auschwitz in what became one of Cronkite's closest friends.

And he would sit like we're waiting right now and just wait, wait, wait, and wait just to have that -- the blastoff. And what distinguished Walter Cronkite in space takeoffs is there's this moment as we're waiting now.

When it would take off, he would simply say things like that looked funny when I read them on a transcript, but like, boy, my gosh, I can't believe it is happening. He had a kind boyish enthusiasm about NASA, and people felt it watching at home.

In fact, in 1980s, Anderson, he lobbied and I have seen the documents lobby NASA to go on the space shuttle. He was determined to be the first journalist in space. Then you have in the blow-up of the "Challenger" and NASA had to reconfigure how to put civilians in space.

By the time John Glenn got to go back up as a senior citizen, Walter Cronkite was deemed too old and he had a heart problem. He was very bitter at NASA that they would not let him actually take part in the space shuttle program.

COOPER: Such a remarkable man and part of American history. Doug, appreciate you being with us this morning. I know you will be watching as well as we will. Talk to anyone connected to the shuttle program 2011, and they're going to tell you the program change is for the better, but the change came, of course, at a terrible price after that tragedies at "Challenger" and "Columbia." We'll have more on that next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS (voice-over): April 24th, 1990. NASA launches the Hubble space telescope. Orbiting the earth at five miles per second, Hubble sends back breathtaking pictures of galaxies, black holes, and new planets. Those photos help advance our understanding of the universe, making it another one of CNN's top moments in space.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back to the continuing coverage, the final mission. President Obama is expected to speak about jobs soon in the Rose Garden and of course, we will bring that to you live.

The moment Challenger exploded after liftoff -- who could forget that in 1986? It changed the shuttle program forever. There were faulty O-rings on the rocket booster that ended the mission less than two minutes after it began, killing the crew of seven.

Seventeen years later, of course, the crew of Columbia met the same fate, this time on reentry. A piece of foam had ripped off turning launch and poked a hole in Columbia's wing. The orbiter burned up when it made its way back to the earth's atmosphere.

Of course, why talk about those tragic moments on this day? Because they changed the way -- those incidents, those tragedies -- changed the way that NASA works and they changed the lives of NASA's employees forever.

I want to bring in my colleague John Zarrella, astronaut Cady Coleman, who's with us, and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who spent six days orbiting the Earth aboard the space shuttle Columbia back in 1986.

Let's start with you, Senator. For you, what's this day like?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Well, it's the end of an incredibly successful program with two great tragedies. And our flight was ten days before Challenger back in 1986. Human mistakes of communication is what caused both space shuttles to be destroyed, but they have all of that worked out. And it is an incredible flying machine. But it is being shut down because after Columbia's destruction, the investigation board said build a safer rocket that can replace the space shuttle. Fly the space shuttle as long as you have to build a space station, and that's what this mission today, carrying up cargo will complete that process.

COOPER: It seems like when you talk about the future of the space program, we are looking at a bunch of different things. In terms of manned space flights, there's a lot in doubt about what the future really holds. They talked about going for orbiting an asteroid. They've talked about perhaps going to Mars some day. But the technology at this point doesn't really exist for that.

How concerned are you about what happens in the interim?

NELSON: Well, I'm concerned, when the House of Representatives have just whacked NASA, and you can't keep the program going like that. But we have a clear path forward. We have the NASA wall in place, two new lines of rockets. One that goes to and from the space station, and another that is the big rocket that will take us eventually to goal, which is Mars. And there are technologies that we will have to develop. And that's all a part of exploration.

COOPER: In terms of unmanned space flights, the path is much clearer. I mean, there is already number of things that are going to be happening just in the next year for unmanned space flights.

COL. CATHERINE COLEMAN, ASTRONAUT, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Yes, that is true. I think there is a tendency to just because of this particular kind of vehicle that the fleet of the space shuttles is not going to be flying, but space flight is over when so far from true.

Right now, as we speak, there are six people living on the international space station. And actually probably listening to CNN as we speak. At least when I was up there a month ago and we would watch the launches, and we end up streaming CNN or the NASA channel.

COOPER: On the international space station.

COLEMAN: Right. Right.

COOPER: That is cool.

COLEMAN: And so, we can't do it all of the time, but when there is a certain kind of communication pass, we can see it. And we like to get the news up there as well, and it is nice way to check in on the progress of the mission. So, we would stream in the NASA channel.

COOPER: Let me ask you what we're looking at right now. We're seeing, I believe it's mission control. What is the mood like in there at a time like this?

COLEMAN: Well, I say there is the station mission control, and looks like they are talking about stuff, probably about the readiness of the arrival of the space shuttle. There is a lot that has to happen on the station to make everything ready so their mission can happen efficiently.

COOPER: And it seems so calm. The control room at CNN, right before the broadcast on CNN, is a nightmare.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: People are screaming and yelling. It seems very orderly. Cady - before you got here, Senator, Cady was saying that she actually fell asleep before going off on a mission. Did you fall asleep --

NELSON: Yes, but -

COOPER: Did you really?

NELSON: But it wasn't like these guys. I mean, they are all business and they have a ten-minute window. Remember, we are the most delayed flight ever. Four scrubs on the pad. We had basically a three-hour window. And at one point, we were cracking jokes --

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And the administrator, Charlie Bolden was on your flight, right?

NELSON: He was the pilot.

ZARRELLA: Yes, the pilot. He was the pilot.

NELSON: Charlie Bolden - one of the best days' work I ever did was I convinced the president to make Charlie the head of NASA.

COOPER: When you went off, Cady was saying it is unlike anything else. You really feel the power of that rocket. Was it really --

NELSON: Well, when those solid rockets light off at T minus-0, and you have about seven million pounds of thrust underneath you, you definitely know you are going someplace. You just hope it is straight up.

(LAUGHTER)

ZARRELLA: What is it, the elephant? Isn't that what you always say, it's like on your chest?

COLEMAN: It is like having a gorilla on the chest. Which I don't know really know what that feels like, but it is really just sort of smooshed in this area.

COOPER: I've had a gorilla charge me, and it's not pleasant.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: This sounds a little more interesting and pleasant.

We've got to take a quick break. We'll continue to talk as we wait for the president to speak on jobs, we wait for the final countdown of launch. We'll go back to where it all began, that first shuttle liftoff back in 1981. Do you remember where you were?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: July 4th, 1965. The Mariner Force spacecraft flies past Mars. The mission provides the first close-up view of the red planet. The 22 images that arrive back on earth are the first-ever returned from deep space, making it another of CNN's top moments in space.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUCNER: T-minus 10 and nine, eight, seven, six, five, four. We have gone from main engine start. We have main engine start.

Blast off of America's first space shuttle. And the shuttle has cleared the tower! Wow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: An amazing, amazing site no matter how many times you have seen it, and we are anticipating will see that coming up around 11:30 or so. The countdown clock right now is in a holding pattern at T-minus nine minutes. Again, and that is a hold that ignore the nine minutes on there. We just got word that the weather is a green for go; that means that the weather is good enough for a launch right now, right now.

Let's check in with Ed Lavandara at mission control.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson. Well, it has been really interesting here at mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Over the last few minutes, you really kind of -- even from our perch overlooking these guys working mission control, the intensity level rising a little bit. They are still very calm, but a lot of the guys -- and to give you a sense of what we are looking at, these guys in the back two rows here - we'll focus on the front row, and you will see two gentlemen there. The one on the left with the white shirt, Tony Siccoche. The gentleman to his right with the dark hair, that is Richard Jones. He is the flight director. He's the man who will make the decision.

They have been standing up for the last few minutes, a lot of consulting going on. We are told that they are going over a lot of the flight rules and exactly what will happen and what different scenarios might play out here within the next hour. So, they are going over a lot of that. We were able to listen to a little bit of the conversations they have. They have been talking to each other. Just a little while ago, they went around the room, making sure, checking all of the systems on the space shuttle to make sure that everything is where it needed to be. We kept hearing, we are a go, we are a go, went around the room. But the focus still remains the weather. We have heard Richard Jones talking to many of the people who are monitoring the weather, and we have heard them being really concerned about storms that could be popping up or bad weather that could be popping up to the southwest of the Kennedy Space Center there, and the launch site. So that is where they are focusing a lot of attention and getting updates right there in that room.

But it has been really fascinating to watch here in the last few minutes, Anderson. The intensity level has started to pick up among these folks as we get closer and closer to launch time. You can see that these conversations they are having really picking up and talking about what is transpiring going on down here over the course of the next hour.

COOPER: Ed, we will continue to check in with you.

I'm joined here on set by CNN's John Zarrella, who has covered many, dozens of launches at this point. Also astronaut Cady Coleman and Senator Bill Nelson who has also been up in space.

As you said, your flight was delayed multiple times. What is that like, all of the anticipation, and then, -- suddenly, there's a hold. Mentally, what is that like?

NELSON: Well, it got to be old hat climbing into the orbiter, and as a matter of fact, one of the jokes, and the crew members, Steve Holly felt like he was the jinx. And so the fifth try when we actually launched, he put a disguise on so that the orbiter wouldn't know it was him.

(LAUGHTER)

COLEMAN: Yes. I flew with Steve, too.

NELSON: And you know, these folks, these professional astronauts are so terrific, and they have such a terrific sense of humor. And you think about it, Anderson, it is therapeutic. A lot of these people, they are on the edge of it all of the time, and humor serves as a function to reduce the tension.

COOPER: Four astronauts aboard this flight. Commander Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walhein (ph). All incredibly experienced in space.

NELSON: Absolutely. In fact, Sandy has lived on the space station, which makes her a really valuable asset for this mission when they have a lot to do in delivering a lot of supplies to the space station. It doesn't help if you deliver supplies but you don't put them in the place that you are supposed to --

COOPER: She is the payload master?

COLEMAN: She is the load master, we call her.

COOPER: Oh, the load master. OK. And it's like 8,000 pounds of food and equipment that they are bringing up. And then they also bring used equipment back down.

COLEMAN: Exactly. And sometimes something failed unexpectedly, and it helps us to understand what happened to them so that we can build things more correctly.

COOPER: You were just on the international space station. How long were you up there?

COLEMAN: I was up there for six months.

COOPER: Six months. From the pictures I have seen, it looks like a nightmare to me. I mean, it looks like -- small and miserable. But you say it is amazing.

COLEMAN: You know, we're keeping it -- it is a carefully held secret. But really, the reality is that it is amazing.

COOPER: Really?

COLEMAN: It is huge, as big as the inside of a 747 if you added up all of the volume.

COOPER: Really? See, it does not come off that way.

COLEMAN: -- after module. And actually they have more space in three dimensions than it would if you were walking around, because we are flying around. Not just floating, but flying. There is a Japanese experiment module, and Columbus is the European experiment module. The U.S. lab Anode (ph), which is a place where we did different things. One of the last missions brought up the Alpha megaspectrometer. That's outside. But also the one before that brought up the PBR, permanent ballistics module. Basically , a big huge closet that we really needed.

COOPER: And you went up in the Russian Soyez, and you went back down. And that is the mission that NASA is going to be paying the Russian space program to send astronauts up and back in Soyez.

COLEMAN: You know, I hate to say it, but the reality of what we're doing now is we spent a long time building the space station. It is there. Six people are living in it. It's orbiting the earth all the time. We have all of the power, the data, the experiments, and the spare parts that we need to do a lot of good work that can't be done down here.

So it is a pretty exciting time for the space station and they will be glad to get what Atlantis is bringing today.

COOPER: And we talked about some of the things that are going to be happening over this next year in terms of unmanned space flight. I just want to specifically -- the Dawn spacecraft is going to go around an asteroid later this month. Juno mission. Also the Mars rover is launching at the end of the year.

ZARRELLA: Yes, that is a big one. That Mars rover, it is like the size of a Volkswagen. It's an enormous rover with all kinds off science capability, and it makes the old Pathfinder, which is about this big - it really just dwarfs those.

COOPER: And do you worry, Senator Nelson, as someone who represents Florida and obviously there's huge economic impact of the people in Florida for this program continuing, that without a clear -- I mean, the mission is Mars, but without the technology at this point and the ability at this point to get to Mars, that Congress will continue to continue to de-fund space programs?

NELSON: Because of the economy is the big fear, that the need to cut back this huge deficit and how are you going to allocate those cuts? Now, I think that the Senate will restore a lot of the cuts that the House of Representatives did, but no doubt. We don't have a cold war with a mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, that we are trying to beat to the moon. And so you don't have that incentive.

But Anderson, you ask the question of any American, do you think that we ought to have a vigorous, successful space program, and you will get a very affirmative answer.

COOPER: And President Obama has said that he wants NASA to focus on the bigger-picture things, on longer-range things like Mars, like an asteroid and let more commercial flights deal with kind of the near-earth orbit.

NELSON: That is the two lines of rockets: the commercial that will be the space taxi that will go to and from the space station, Then the big rocket to let NASA do what NASA ought to be doing, which is to get out of the earth orbit. Go explore the cosmos, and that is what we are going to do.

COOPER: A lot ahead. Let's talk with Carol Costello is over at a beach very near the space center over at Port Canaveral. Carol, obviously good news that the weather at this point is green, and the weather is a go. That is certainly good news for the folks who have been waiting an awfully long time.

COSTELLO: Anderson, they have been waiting an awfully long time, and they have come from far and wide and from all over the country. I met some people here from New Zealand and Australia who came here to Port Canaveral just to see this last shuttle launch.

Let's talk to some of my friends from Canada. This is Steve and his son, Adam, and you have been here since 1:00 a.m. Eastern this morning. Oh my goodness, why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I could not miss the last shuttle launch. I have wanted to see one for years, and this is the end of an era. and I just could not miss it.

COSTELLO: Why didn't you come before?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Family, work, and it just --

COSTELLO: I ask you that because this is the kind of thing that NASA would have wanted to see through the history of the space shuttle. Yet here you are for the first time and the last time. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it takes a big commitment to get down here. It was 22 hours of driving to come here, so, you know, with the family it is hard to make that time sometimes.

COSTELLO: Oh, I can understand that.

Adam, if this thing launches, and we believe it will so far, what do you expect it to be like?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. I have seen too many space movies. My expectations are pretty high.

(LAUGHTER)

COSTELLO: It will be fantastic, I'm sure.

I want to come over here to talk to my friend from St. Louis, because I posed to you a question, that you are here to watch this final historic launch of the shuttle. There has been a criticism of NASA, and spending all of the tax dollars to do these missions. No one quite understands why the missions are going up. Is it worth it for you as a taxpayer to witness this in all of the money it takes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it must be, because this is the fifth time I have tried to see the shuttle launch and I have only been successful once. I saw the last one. So to me, I am kind of biased, you know. I have to say, yes it is worth it, I think. When people look at the numbers and how much money it really costs, it sounds like a lot at first. But in reality, all of NASA's budget is less than seven-tenths of one percent of the federal budget.

And I think the long-range plans that NASA has to do with the shuttle using something based on Orion to do a possible asteroid mission, I think, in the long run, that is going to be important.

COSTELLO: So that President Obama says that we kind of need to change direction, NASA needs to change direction. That is okay by you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, and that's something that has gone back to the Bush administration, so there is a lot of bipartisan support for changing the basic way that NASA does things.

COSTELLO: Okay. So, we are hoping that the shuttle goes off. We're hoping, Anderson. We have our fingers crossed and our toes and hoping that everything goes as planned, because people told me yesterday that a million people were going to invade this area to witness this launch. I did not believe them then, but boy, do I believe it now.

COOPER: Yes, we actually left at 6:00 a.m. from the inn where we were staying, which is only five or six miles from here, because the traffic, and we knew the traffic would be thick and it was thick. It took us quite a while to get here. A lot of excitement here and people selling T-shirts on the side of the road. I am hoping that they are discounted on the way back. (LAUGHTER)

COOPER: So, I'm going to wait. I think I'm very clever for doing that.

COSTELLO: Hey, buy one!

COOPER: Our coverage continues. All right. Sounds good. 11:26 is when the launch is supposed to occur, and again, it may be a nail- biter. It might be down to the last minute before we know for sure whether or not this is going to be the launch today. Let's keep our fingers crossed. More from the excited families gathered at the visiting complex here.

And waiting for President Obama very soon, supposed to speak live from the Rose Garden. We will bring that live to you. Much more when we continue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: July 20th, 1969 --

NASA ANNOUNCER: It is one small step for man --

JOHNS: And for the first time in history, humans walk on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spend nearly 24 hours on the lunar surface, collecting 47 pounds of moon rock as Michael Collins flies the module around the moon. The mission fulfilled President Kennedy's goal of reaching the moon before the Soviet Union. A CNN top moment in space.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: So, mission control saying no go?

And welcome back to the final mission of the space shuttle. Getting word that mission control is no-go. Again, this is going back and forth. We got a green that weather was fine, but at this point, mission control is saying no-go, but we will continue to follow this. The launch is scheduled for 11:26.

We are anticipating President Obama soon to appear in the Rose Garden to speak about jobs. We will bring that to you live.

At this point, when you hear the mission control saying no-go, exactly, what does that mean Cady Coleman?

COLEMAN: It depends what it's for. In this case, it's for the weather. The means that certain pressure that has to be met for all of the systems to be go for launch and if any one of them isn't go, we are waiting. There is usually a specific paths they are going down to solve those problems and explain to the flight director in what time frame are they solvable and what is the plan.

COOPER: So, it does not mean that the mission is no-go at this point, but that the weather is not --

COLEMAN: Correct. And everything is proceeding on track as if the weather was go, but right now, we are still no-go for weather.

ZARRELLA: And there is an astronaut right now, and he is flying in shuttle training aircraft and he is doing real time look at the weather conditions above and aloft to gauge what the situation is, the height of the cloud decks, the thickness of the clouds -

COLEMAN: Exactly.

ZARRELLA: All of that plays into whether they can launch.

COOPER: And if they don't launch today at 11:26, can they launch tomorrow?

COLEMAN: They physically they could, but it would be harder, and the mission management team has made a decision that with all of the crowds that came to see this launch today, the folks that have to work after the launch that doesn't happen, those folks have to get home. They have to get some sleep and come back and actually, because of the extra crowds, the workforce really can't just get in and out fast enough.

COOPER: That is interesting, because so many people, estimated one million people, the workers here actually physically will be delayed getting home, and so they have decided they won't do the launch on Saturday if does not launch today. So the crowds actually do kind of affect them?

COLEMAN: Well, I would say it affects them, but it is not the primary driver. And basically, they have three days of a launch window here, and they had to focus on two, and I think that was just one factor that contributed.

COOPER: So when is the next day they would go for?

COLEMAN: Sunday morning. And everyday, it is 20 minutes earlier, so 40 minutes earlier than 11:26.

COOPER: All right. Well, everyone is obviously hoping that it will happen today at 11:26. The clock is ticking. As we said, we are also waiting for President Obama to speak on the jobs numbers that came out today.

Let's quickly check in with Brooke Baldwin who is at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex. Brooke?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Anderson. I know you are hearing a possible no-go, and I know this is the final space shuttle launch here. And we are hoping to send more astronauts up in space.

Take a look at me next to me, I might have found a few who are waiting in the wings. Let me introduce them. They are David, Jay, both of whom are four, kindergartners, aspiring astronauts. And I have Cade here. Cade came all the way in from Colorado. Cade, high five for the commander suit, buddy. Oh! So why do you like space so much, bud?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Because, like, I never been there before. And --

BALDWIN: Me neither, by the way.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So when I grow up, I'm going to be an astronaut and I'm going to the moon.

BALDWIN: You are going to go to the moon?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mm-hmm.

BALDWIN: Maybe I can come with you? As a journalist, I can come with you on board?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes.

BALDWIN: What is so exciting about being here all of the way from Colorado to see this launch? What are you so excited about?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What I'm so excited about is that, like, I have never seen the launch before. I only saw it on the computer. But now is my first -- my last time to see it and --

BALDWIN: It is your last time. This is the last space shuttle. Are you a little sad about that?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes.

BALDWIN: Maybe you can help develop the next one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Uh-huh.

BALDWIN: OK. Keed (ph), thank you so much.

Guys, nice to meet you very much. Nice to meet you. Thank you very much.

Anderson, back over to you.

COOPER: Brooke, thanks very much.