Video: Remembering the era of The Right Stuff

  1. Closed captioning of: Remembering the era of The Right Stuff

    >>> finally tonight, while the weather forecast right now looks a little sketchy, the final space shuttle launch is scheduled for this coming friday. for now, though, the news is this -- in terms of the ability of the u.s. to send americans into space , this is the end of the space program . a lot of people are trying to put the best face on it. many are not. and john glenn is among them. his name belongs on any list of genuine american heroes of the modern era . combat pilot, world war ii and korea, former u.s. senator . he was the first american to orbit the earth and later flew on shuttle discovery . and it galls john glenn that for american astronauts, the russian space program is now their ride into space . we met up with joh glenn at the air and space museum branch outside washington near dulles airport where they keep the big ticket items like the space shuttle . we talked with him about the end of the program. we also talked to our own jay barbree . this final launch will be the 166th space mission he has covered. so tonight, two veterans of the space program in their own words.

    >> you have feelings of nostalgia, but on a bigger picture, im'm sad we're not maximizing the return of the internatiol space program . the ternational space station is the most unique laboratory made by human beings . without a space shuttle , we have no way of getting into space ourselves. so we're accepteding or astronauts over to russia to have them put our people in the soyuz, which for the world's greatest space faring nation as we say, that's just not the answer to me.

    >> after 53 years with nbc news and covering all space flights, it is the end of an era . it's the end of the space shuttle that we've all grown used to. but it's time for another space race . it's time now to move into commercial space flight and it's time to move into deep space . i think about everyone in the space family wants to see that. they want toee astronauts beyond low earth orbit .

    >> would it be okay to you to retire the shuttle if the next vehicle was ready? just as mercury ran its course and was replaced by gemini was replaced by apollo, was replaced by the shuttle. if there was something next on the pipeline, would it be better --

    >> absolutely, you put your finger on it. i would feel better if the next vehicle was ready to go when we took the shuttle out of commission. now there's a gap. if we tailored them in so the one program dove tailed and replaced the other one, i think that's fine.

    >> 18 seconds and counting.

    >> godspeed, john glenn .

    >> john glenn is the right stuff. he was one of the mercury astronauts , the first american in orbit and he flew at a time that rockets were blowing up more often than they were flying. this last launch is just part of the overall picture. and that's 50 years in space by the american people .

    >> what about the american spirit ? say nothing of research, say nothing of explore nation, both of which i think are hard wired into our character. what about what this did to rally our people?

    >> i think back before the early space flights, which i was fortunate enough to be on one of them. and i think some of those early space flights are what brought the american psyche back into battery again maybe and said hey, we can do this thing. we had some successes. and we were moving and yes, we'll outdo them and we did. it was a restoration of the american sake key back in those days and i think we played a role in it.

    >> our thanks to jay barbree and john glenn who this month will turn 90 years old. he and his wife celebrated their 6th wedding anniversary . just getting started. thank you

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/6/2011 2:43:19 PM ET 2011-07-06T18:43:19
Commentary

Possibly as many as a million people are expected to descend on Kennedy Space Center this week in hopes of witnessing the final launch of the space shuttle.

Astronauts have lifted off from Florida 165 times, and the only one of those launches that drew as much attention as Atlantis' final shuttle flight was the 21st liftoff: Apollo 11.

Today, the mood and atmosphere of this place is very different. There’s a lot of uncertainty.  The only sure bet is that following the space shuttle’s farewell flight, most of the members of the launch team will be out of job.

Critics say NASA is in shambles. There is no defined mission for astronauts' future. But NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a veteran astronaut himself, says hold on.

"I’m not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch," he declared last week.

Boeing and SpaceX could have Americans flying their commercial spacecraft by 2015, and Bolden says astronauts could be heading for deep space in 2016.

Forty-two years ago this month, the scene was in sharper focus. The mission to land astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon came at the height of prestige for America’s space program. The country was first. Americans were beating the Russians. A decade-long race to put a human on another world was about to end. Armstrong and Aldrin were riding their lunar lander, known as Eagle, to the finish line.

Image: "Moon Shot"
Open Road Integrated Media
"Moon Shot" recounts the story of the early space effort. NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has updated the book, written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton as co-authors, for the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. and Soviet spaceflights.

First on the Moon:
An excerpt from "Moon Shot":
Thirteen hundred feet above the moon’s surface, Eagle began its final descent.  Flames gushed downward as the craft slowed.  Neil Armstrong had flown his mission right along the edge of the razor. He and Buzz Aldrin functioned as one mind.  Now they were doing more than falling moonward. They were so close Neil had to fly this ship. He punched "PROCEED" into his keyboard.  The computer would handle the immediate descent tasks. Buzz would back up both man and electronic brain so Neil could adapt to flying in vacuum.

Both men looked through the triangular windows to study the surface of the moon. They’d made simulated runs so many times they knew their intended landing site as well as they knew familiar airfields back home. Almost immediately, they noticed that they weren’t where they were supposed to be.

Damn!

Eagle had overshot the landing zone, Home Plate, by four miles.  A slight navigational error and a faster-than-intended descent speed accounted for the Eagle missing its planned touchdown on a selected smooth spot on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

Neil studied the surface rising toward them. Boulders surrounded a yawning crater wider than a football field, and Eagle was running out of fuel and headed straight for it. No time to waste.

In the lunar void there was no gliding to conserve fuel. Eagle was only dead weight in vacuum. There also was no opportunity to orbit again for another try at landing.  Their only chance to succeed was to land.

Neil Armstrong gripped the hand controller in his fist, firm and strong, with a touch honed by years of flight in jets and rockets.  He knew the “thin edge” well, both in atmosphere and in hurtling through orbit.  Now he had to fly as he’d never flown before.  Knowledge, experience, the touch — the skill, the Gemini 8 emergency, the X-15 rockets skimming over Edward Air Force Base's hard sands, ejecting from his crippled jet fighter over Korea when he was 21, dammit, even ejecting from the lunar lander trainer before it crashed. All of it, everything came to this one moment.

The Ohio farm boy, Neil Armstrong came from the same soil as Orville and Wilbur.  This was his Kitty Hawk, and he needed to hand-fly man’s first landing on the moon the rest of the way.

His fingers alternately tightened and eased his grip on the controls.

Eagle was sailing down at 20 feet per second.  Neil nudged the power, slowing to nine feet per second.

He attuned his senses to the rocking motions, the nudges, and the skidding motions of the 16 small positioning thrusters that kept Eagle aligned throughout its descent.  A level touchdown was their ticket to safety, survival, and return home.

Mission Control listened, mesmerized and awed, to the voices closing in on the lunar surface.  Neil flew Eagle.  Buzz watched the landing radar, called out numbers that represented split-second judgment and maneuvering.

"Five hundred forty feet [height above the surface], down at 30 [feet per second] ... down at 15 ... 400 feet, down at nine ... forward ... 350 feet, down at four ... 300 feet, down three and a half ... 47 forward ...  one and a half down ... 13 forward ... 11 forward, coming down nicely ... 200 feet, four and a half down..."

Despite the confidence of the astronauts’ voices, there was a looking problem: There was no place to land.  Rocks, huge boulders and deadly craters were strewn everywhere.

Mission Control was dead silent.

Neil fired the Eagle’s maneuvering jets. Eagle scooted across rubble billions of years old.  Finally, beyond a field of boulders, a smooth, flat area.

Astronaut Charlie Duke, Mission Control’s communicator with Eagle, sounded the warning.  "Sixty seconds."

There was one minute of fuel left. In 60 short seconds the rocket power flaming beneath Eagle would burn out.

Neil Armstrong calmly aimed for his new landing site.  The Eagle’s commander kept one thought uppermost in his mind.

Fly.

Eagle swayed gently from side to side as the thrusters responded to Neil’s experienced hand.

Far away, down through the atmosphere and the clouds, enclosed within Mission Control, the flight controllers were almost frantic with their inability to do anything more to aid Neil and Buzz.

Flight director Gene Kranz spoke to Charlie Duke. "You’d better remind them there ain’t no damn gas stations on the moon."

Charlie nodded and keyed his mike. A timer stared at him. "Thirty seconds."

"Light’s on."

This time the announcement was from Buzz Aldrin as he watched an amber light blink balefully at him from the master caution-and-warning panel. It was the low-fuel signal.

Buzz then intoned the numbers like a priest, steady and clear, voicing the final moments flashing away.

"Seventy-five feet," he called out.

"Six forward..."

"Light's on ... down two and a half ... 40 feet, down two and a half . . .”

Eagle was now slipping downward 50 feet above the moon.  Men and machine embraced a new level of potential danger. This close to the surface, they had no margin for error. If their space vessel failed them, or if they ran out of fuel, they would not have time to abort. If they ran into any problem this close, there would be no time for circuits and solenoids and explosive charges to separate the Eagle from its lifeless descent stage, no time for fuel to stream through lines into the ascent stage’s combustion chamber beneath their boots, no time for the fuel to ignite and hurl them upward before they crashed.

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Time was their enemy.

"Thirty feet ... two and a half down...”

Then, the magic words!

"Kicking up some dust ...

"Faint shadow..."

So close now!  So close!

There was no turning back. The door behind them had closed.

"Four forward ... drifting to the right a little..."

Everyone in Mission Control, and in the visitors’ viewing gallery, and throughout the vast halls of NASA, everyone anywhere who knew what was happening just above the moon was hoping, praying, straining.

Image: Shuttle Enterprise and Apollo artifacts
Renee Bouchard / NASA file
The artifacts on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center include the Enterprise, a space shuttle prototype, as well as a copper-colored "boilerplate" mockup of the Apollo command module, outfitted with the actual Apollo 11 flotation bags and collar; and the silver trailer where the Apollo 11 astronauts were kept in quarantine after their historic flight. Soon Enterprise will be replaced by the shuttle Discovery, which is currently being prepared for display.

Fuel flashed away.  Neil Armstrong flew Eagle with the smooth touch of a naval aviator landing his jet on a storm tossed carrier.

On Earth, billions of hearts pounded madly.

Then, Buzz Aldrin spoke the first words from the surface of the moon. "Contact light! OK, engine stop.  Descent engine command override off..."

In Houston, CapCom Charlie Duke was choking with relief.  But he still needed voice confirmation. He wanted to hear the words.

"We copy you down, Eagle," he radioed. Then he waited.

Three seconds for the voices to rush back and forth, Earth to the moon and moon back to Earth.

Those three incredible seconds, and then came the call.

Neil’s voice was calm, confident, most of all clear.

"Houston, Tranquility Base Here.  The Eagle has landed.”

More from 'Moon Shot':

Excerpted from "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree. Reprinted with permission. Published by Open Road Integrated Media, copyright 2011. "Moon Shot" is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store and OverDrive.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Photos: End of the Space Shuttle

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  1. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Above: Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  2. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  3. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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