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Beyond Atlantis: The Next Frontier

Aired July 8, 2011 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: Hi. I'm Anderson Cooper reporting tonight from the Kennedy's Space Center in Florida.

Earlier today thousands upon thousands of people lined the Atlantic coast in Central Florida to witness the last launch of an American icon as the space shuttle "Atlantis" blasted off for the very last time and roared into space.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When liftoff, the final liftoff of "Atlantis." on the shoulders of the space shutting, America will continues the dream.

COOPER: "Atlantis" will rendezvous with an international space station and bring a year's worth of supplies to the six currently aboard before returning to earth to officially mark the end of the program. So, after 30 years why is the space shuttle coming to an end? What will NASA's next great adventure be? And could commercial space travel beyond the horizon?

Here's a Special Report from CNN's John Zarrella "Beyond Atlantis, the next frontier".


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want the main entrance start.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we did in shuttle over 30 years dwarfed what was done in the Apollo era.

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

What's next for NASA?

UNDINTIFIED MALE: 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.

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 of quarter mile away. The last time of shuttle would make the journey bringing a glorious, sometimes tragic era one step closer to the end.

But was it worth it? Three decades in low earth orbit not venturing outward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Folks, how are you doing?


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

CHRISTOPHER FERGUSON, COMMANDER, SHUTTLE ATLANTIS: 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 ASTRAUNAUT: 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. I was strolling on the moon one day

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a model of the shuttle. They can see it.

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 unfettered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The trip to solar access may be detected 10 minutes.

ZARRELLA: To capture and retrieve failed satellites, dead in space, dangerous feats unheard of before shuttle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houston, I think we got a satellite.

ZARRELLA: 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.

CHARLIE BOLDEN, HEAD OF NASA: 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.

BOLDEN: Before the shuttle, not a single woman or person of color had flown on a U.S. spacecraft.

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, COMMITTEE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA'S BLUE RIBBON: If you think the goal was to 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.

BILL NELSON, SENATOR (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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Challenger, go at throttle up.

ZARRELLA: "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.

This is the altar?


ZARRELLA: All right. You have a lot of explaining to do. The cores can. The lite can. ONIZUKA: The baseball.

ZARRELLA: The baseball.

ONIZUKA: He played a lot of ball.

ZARRELLA: Lorna Onizuka rarely talks publicly about what happened and the years since. Her husband, Ellison Onizuka was one of the seven on board "Challenger."

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

ZARRELLA: Obviously he was OK with accepting the risk.

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

ZARRELLA: 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 become alive again on Tuesday. And 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: 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.

You think it was worth it?

ONIZUKA: Yes, I do. I think a lot of it is because I think al would have thought it was worth it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, touchdown.

ZARRELLA: The shuttle program came back from "challenger" and came back again after "Columbia." Lost re-entering 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.

NELSON: 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, COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN, SPACEFLIGHT: 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.


NELSON: We're ceding that leadership back to the same people by a different name. They're Russians today. They were soviets then. 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. 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: 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 take you inside with one of her commanders coming up.


ZARRELLA: 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, COMMANDER: Welcome aboard the space shuttle "discovery."

ZARRELLA: Thank you, commander.

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

ZARRELLA: 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.

How many seated on the mid deck?

CABANA: If you're flying a crew of seven, you've got three folks down here, so one there and two more over here.

ZARRELLA: "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 Stillson. I caught up with her earlier in the day.

STEPHANIE STILLSON, 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.

STILLSON: 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 is going to be a big change for some folks.

ZARRELLA: Stillson 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 a look at the air look.

ZARRELLA: Sure, we'll take a look in the air lock. Crawl about 12 feet. I'm going to drag these cables in, too.

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 spacesuits 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 can you 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's seat. There's a lot of buttons 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.


The pilot sits in the right seat.

The windows are covered with sun shields. CABANA: There are three window panes. There's a pressure pane, a protective pane and a thermal pane.

ZARRELLA: So there are three layers of glass?

CABANA: And they're about this thick.

ZARRELLA: Each one.

CABNA: Each one, yes. And you know how you get rock chips in your starbursts in your windshield?


CABANA: Every one of my flights I've had micrometeorite pings from something hitting it.

ZARRELLA: Sitting here, cabana is reminded of a lift-off on "Endeavour."

CABANA: That whole ascent. Just the sense of speed and acceleration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's the main engine start. Pretty soon you'll see the SRBs. A lot of shaking and vibrating.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You really know you're going to space.

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

ZARRELLA: You were the pilot. You were sitting right there?

CABANA: Right here. And I was making sure 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.

UNIDENTFIED MALE: It's unbelievable. If you have live coverage with us, we're floating around.

ZARRELLA: So many people have tried to describe what it's like when you're on re-entry, what you're seeing coming back. CABANA: What I remember is just this orange/white glow out the window. And 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. They were trying to get me out it's like this is my spaceship. You can't have it, you know. I didn't want it to end. You know? I just wanted it to go on. It was great.

ZARRELLA: 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.

What do you do when the shuttle stops flying, Mike?

MIKE LEINBACH, DIRECTOR, SHUTTLE LAUNCH: 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: 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 moves 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 testing -- and building the shuttle's solid rocket boosters here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over 180 degrees.

This is a typical space shuttle segment.

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

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

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

ZARRELLA: And a way of life passed from generation to generation.

JEFFSON (ph): 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 Jeffson(ph). 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, 2,100 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.

Flight controller is 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.

JEFFSON(ph): This place mourned just like anybody else. It was a part of us, and it was a tough moment. With 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: This is the forward segment?

JEFF CANTHON(ph): Forward segment. Yes.

ZARRELLA: Jeff Canthon(ph) and his son, Ryan, both work here. Uncertainty is frightening.

RYAN CANTHON(ph): Whether I have to go to another industry, if I have to go move out of state, those types of things, that's what goes through my mind as we finish this off 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 is nothing to replace it.

It doesn't fit 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.

JEFF CANTHON(ph): 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 team runs through a countdown rehearsal. The booster is identical to the ones being shipped to the space center.

The test will ensure the manufacturing processes are absolutely perfect.

This will be the 52nd test since 1977. Also the last.

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 pours 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, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, ATK BOOSTER: 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.

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.




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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 Gernhart 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.

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

ZARRELLA: And this is not some high-tech laboratory and because money is tight --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're all about being cost effective. You know, glad bag type of thing.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

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

ZARRELLA: 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.

BILL TODD, NASA: 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, Gernhart's team is developing a vehicle that can go to any destination, putting it through its paces on simulated heavenly surfaces.

(on camera): We're going down to the crater now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down in the crater now. Hang on.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do. That's always been my dream.

ZARRELLA: In Gernhart'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.

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

ZARRELLA: So we're coming up now on the Mars yard appropriately named.

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

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


ZARRELLA: Alien life.

(voice-over): In five years, Gernhart 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.

CHARLIE BOLDEN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: Crazy people like me, we'll do anything, and we'll fly anything. But in order to expand the capability to bring more people into spaceflight we needed 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, 10 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 all 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.

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very expensive thing for NASA to maintain. 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a matter of national priority.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China will try do something very dramatic. India will. Others will. Perhaps the Russians and that 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.

CHRISTOPHER FERGUSON, SHUTTLE ATLANTIS COMMANDER: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, you did good.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It gets a whole panorama.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.



ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Isha Sesay in New York with breaking news tonight. We have just learned that former first lady Betty Ford has died at the age of 93.

What we know according to family members that Ford died nearly two hours ago surrounded by family members and that her death was peaceful. Samantha Hayes has a look back at her life. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Betty Ford's life in the political spotlight started quickly after her marriage to Gerald Ford who was elected to Congress two weeks after their wedding.

As first lady, she developed her own persona beyond the White House and was known for speaking out on abortion rights and women in the workplace. Also the mother of four children, she was considered strong, active and most of all candid.


BETTY FORD: My own health has made it possible for me to go ahead and in my way share what I learned with others.


HAYES: Before 1974 it was almost unheard of for a first lady to publicly mention personal problems. And the first year of her husband's presidency, she announced she had breast cancer and would undergo a mastectomy. But it is the Betty Ford Center for Substance Abuse that will be her greatest legacy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think she educated a generation that needed education that needed support in how to deal with these problems.

HAYES: Mrs. Ford disclosed publicly that she had for years abused alcohol and had become dependent on prescription drugs, the first major political figure to openly address a problem that plagued millions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has been from the very first day a place for any man or woman who wanted help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It made it unnecessary to hide the reality of substance abuse and I think that was a contribution that Betty Ford made.

HAYES: Mrs. Ford kept largely out of the public eye in her latter years. Most Americans saw her for the first time in more than a decade at the funeral and burial of her husband.

It was a four-day period of national mourning and although she looked fragile she never wavered and the treatment center she helped create will be a memorial for generations to come. In Washington, I'm Samantha Hayes.


SESAY: Again, the breaking news, former first lady Betty Ford has died. She was 93 years old. Now back to "Beyond Atlantis: The Next Frontier."


ZARRELLA (voice-over): Here in the middle of nowhere, under a high blue sky, is space port America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I always say it is 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 Caballos Mountains, taxpayers anted up $207 million, a leap of faith.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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 mother ship will take off down this runway, climb to 50,000 feet and release a space plane tucked 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got extensive tests over the next 15 months before 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 into 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two, one.

ZARRELLA: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Confirmed. It is complete.

ZARRELLA: 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 ride in 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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, not to waste that position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lift-off of the "Falcon 9."

ZARRELLA: When we return, saying goodbye to an American icon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will be as proud as anybody there at the SLF when we land.

BOLDEN: This is hard.




ZARRELLA (voice-over): 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those tiles kept flying off. Engines kept blowing up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before it ever flew.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Before it ever flew. We thought it would 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was only when we got inside of a minute when 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 ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we've gone from main engine start.

ROBERT CRIPPEN, FIRST SHUTTLE PILOT: The first stage, 8-1/2 minutes while you're under thrust goes by so fast. And on my first flight, my eyes were like saucers, so that seemed like about 15 seconds.

ZARRELLA: John, your heart rate hardly went up at all, but Bob's went up to about 130 on ascent.


CRIPPEN: I was bored to tears.

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

JOHN YOUNG, FIRST SHUTTLE COMMANDER: 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. Probably be slightly high at staging.

CRIPPEN: We were doing lots of stuff so we didn't really have time to concentrate too much on, 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 to let you stay up there for a couple days.

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

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

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

YOUNG: When we were coming back, I said --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What a way to come back to California. ZARRELLA: It had been 2 days, 6 hours and 20 minutes since people crowded into Titusville, 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. He was 18 when his uncle, an aerospace company employee, brought him to see Crippen and Young lift off. Now he was back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the end of an era. Decades long era. There will be nothing like it again.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be awesome.

ZARRELLA: Breyer, 12.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be a little dot in the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be big, Breyer.


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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have how many minutes?


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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got to see it. The kids got to see it.

ZARRELLA: They did. NASA resolved the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Twenty seconds. 20 seconds.

ZARRELLA: "Discovery" lifted off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There it goes! Go, go, go.

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


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's so cool!

ZARRELLA: A moment to be savored, analyzed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought it would be a little louder.

ZARRELLA: And, of course, matured over time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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, and 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 nostalgia for the shuttle. Were we ever that audacious to go build spacecraft to do things like that? I will be as proud as anybody there at the SLF when we land.

BOLDEN: 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 and 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.


SESAY: I'm Isha Sesay in New York with breaking news tonight.

We have just learned that former First Lady Betty Ford has died at the age of 93. What we know right now, according to family members, is that Ford died just a short time ago, that her death was peaceful and family members were by her bedside.

Betty Ford was known, of course, as a first lady. Her husband Gerald Ford was sworn in as president in 1974. But she became perhaps even many better known as an advocate for those suffering addiction. Ford disclosed publicly that she had abused alcohol and prescription drugs, and went on to found the Betty Ford Center in California in 1982.

Ford also was a crusader for breast cancer research after undergoing cancer treatment herself in the 1970s.

She won many awards for her work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Once again, the breaking news tonight, former First Lady Betty Ford has died. Betty Fords was 93 years old.

Now back to "Beyond Atlantis: The Next Frontier."