Discovery astronauts reflect on veteran shuttle's final voyage

CBS News

On the eve of returning to Earth Wednesday to close out the shuttle Discovery's 39th and final flight, the ship's crew said the nation should be proud of the shuttle program's accomplishments, but expressed concern that a replacement vehicle is not waiting in the wings to replace it.

Here is a transcript of a CBS News interview with shuttle commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott and spacewalkers Stephen Bowen and Alvin Drew.

CBS News: Commander Lindsey, you've probably said, and we've probably reported, everything that can possibly be said about this being the last flight for Discovery. For somebody who flies these things for a living, how hard is it to retire a spacecraft that seemingly has a lot of life left in her?

The Discovery astronauts field a final round of questions before landing Wednesday. Back row, left to right: Stephen Bowen, Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott. Front row, left to right: Pilot Eric Boe, commander Steven Lindsey, Michael Barratt. (Credit: NASA TV)
Lindsey: I guess it's going to be sad when it's over, when we land tomorrow or the next day. I guess the hardest part of this for me is giving up the capability, because if you really look at what this spacecraft does, it can do everything except leave low-Earth orbit. It's a science laboratory, it can dock with space stations, we did build the U.S. segment of the International Space Station with these vehicles, hauled cargo and people up and down with up mass and down mass that's unmatched anywhere. We deployed the Hubble Space Telescope with this vehicle.

It starts out its life as a rocket, becomes an orbiting laboratory or a docking vehicle, a maneuverable spacecraft on orbit and lands like an airplane. That capability is unmatched anywhere and probably will be unmatched for many, many, many years to come. And so, giving up all of that capability and the amazing versatility of this spacecraft is what's the most difficult for me, and probably for everybody who's working in the program.

CBS News: And along those lines for Nicole Stott, with so much uncertainty right now with the future of U.S. manned spaceflight, what are your concerns? And what are the things that most excite you about what's ahead?

Stott: I think from the concern standpoint right now, I think we're still in this phase of really defining what the next steps are going to be and I look forward to seeing what that is. I hold real hope that we'll be challenging ourselves, we'll be doing big things and going out of low-Earth orbit. I would love to see us go back to the moon, I don't know if that's in the plans or not, but I hope that what will be happening is a challenge, and will be taking us places as much as vehicles like Discovery and the space shuttle have done for us and that we'll be learning all kinds of new things. I think that's what makes it exciting as well. There's plenty of opportunities out there. We're a great country that's done really, really amazing things with our space program and I really just hope that that will continue.

CBS News: I think to a lot of people, your mission is the first really concrete sign that the beginning of the end is finally here for this program. For MIke Barratt, what do you say to the workforce, and really to all Americans, on the eve of this final landing for Discovery?

Barratt: I think about this space shuttle fleet like the clipper ships that were strong and fast and powerful, they did their jobs but they were also graceful and beautiful. They conjured up imagination, of foreign travel, exotic places, of exploration. And Discovery is just an elite member of this elite fleet. The clippers faded, and it was because there was an alternative, there was another ship that was coming in, steam power that was stronger, faster perhaps, but not quite as beautiful.

We don't have that yet, we have the legacy of the clippers in our shuttle fleet and it's a legacy that everybody who's ever touched these vehicles should be extremely proud of. I think the only problem area there is we don't have that follow on, we're not replacing the shuttle with something and I think that's what makes it a little bit sad for us. But make no mistake, when we bring Discovery home it is a time to celebrate. I mean, the legacy this spaceship has made for herself is just nothing more than cause for celebration, she's returned so much science, so much experience and the experience that we as crew members have had has just been marvelous and again, something our country should be very, very proud of.

CBS News: When you talk to folks who've worked on the shuttle over the years, there's almost a sense of disbelief that it's come to this, that the agency's been told to give up a very mature, operational vehicle, arguably the most capable spacecraft ever built, in favor of less ambitious vehicles that have not yet been designed or tested. Do any of you resent the way this has played out? Or is it simply the shuttle's time to go?

Lindsey: That's a tough question to answer. Obviously, we have a vision, we're looking at expanding out of low-Earth orbit and so the objective, as part of retiring the shuttle the plan was to go out of low-Earth orbit and from what I've seen so far, that's what we're still intent on doing. To go there with the budget and what we have right now, we really can't afford to do all of that. So to take the next step and get out of low-Earth orbit, we have to go to a different type of vehicle to do that.

And so, it's sad to give up this kind of capability, although I think someday in the future we'll probably have similar capability. I don't know when that would be, but I really, strongly believe in the next step, as Nicole mentioned earlier, to try to get out of low-Earth orbit, go to an asteroid, go to the moon, get out and explore the solar system. We do need a new vehicle for that.

CBS News: Nicole, you worked on the space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center before you joined the astronaut corps, you know better than most what an amazing machine Discovery is, and the other two orbiters. As you look out the window, what are your thoughts on the eve of this final landing for Discovery?

Stott: Certainly there are the thoughts of bringing this vehicle to wheels stopped on the runway for the last time. But like Steve mentioned earlier about the team that's associated with this, I think that's really what I'm going to be thinking about. As I look out the windows, I feel really, really blessed to have had the opportunity to not only work on Discovery and the other orbiters on the ground but also to just have this opportunity to look out the windows and appreciate it from the inside as well. (Saying) thanks has just continued to come to mind for me, thanking the people on the ground who have taken such meticulous care of these vehicles. It's in their bones, this is a passion for them, this is not just 'I go to work every day,' it really is a heart-and-soul kind of thing. I think that's what it's coming down to for me, thinking about that and appreciating just how much has gone into this by this wonderful team of people who have taken such good care of these vehicles.

CBS News: This question is for Eric Boe. You've got kids and down the line, maybe some grandchildren on the way, who will only know about the space shuttle from history books and from video and things on the internet. Maybe you'll take them to see Discovery at the Smithsonian, or wherever it winds up. What will you tell them about what it was like to fly the space shuttle?

Boe: I'll tell them that Discovery and the space shuttle fleet was a dream machine. It's just amazing what this vehicle can do. It can launch like a rocket, go into orbit, change it into a spacecraft and then land as a hypersonic airplane. What's amazing is just how well she sails. It's an honor and privilege for all of us to get the chance (to fly) on her final voyage.