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Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program

Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program by Pat Duggins. University Press of Florida, 2007, 264 pp.

The space shuttle is an intriguing craft. Part spaceship, part glider, sometimes boxcar or bus, it is a wondrous vehicle. Originally billed as the new vehicle to carry Air Force satellites, the shuttle came into its own in 1993 by transporting segments of the International Space Station as that program took off. The shuttle’s life is complex and multifaceted, fraught with lofty successes and equally grim tragedies.

Pat Duggins, National Public Radio’s resident space expert since 1996, does yeoman’s work in chronicling the story of the space shuttle. Well suited to write this book, he has covered a multitude of shuttle missions, two of its tragedies, and the twists and turns of the spacecraft’s career from inception to scheduled retirement.

An easy read, Final Countdown does not serve up dry history or include facts or dates without reason. This book is packed with insider information about the space shuttle, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) space program in general, and many of the key figures in the shuttle’s history.

The first chapter, “The Future,” splendidly lays out a synopsis of the space program from Mr. Carl Walz’s announcement in 2005 about the future of the moon and Mars programs to development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Duggins weaves in pieces of Apollo and space shuttle program history and lessons learned, aptly applying these in the context of the upcoming CEV and its missions.

The author sets the stage for discussion of the shuttle’s birth and development as well as NASA’s plans for the CEV after the shuttle program ends. He cites a press meeting in February 2006, during which a reporter asked Astronaut Steve Lindsey and his crew if any of them were thinking of training for a moon mission. Evidently caught off guard, after exchanging looks with his crew, Lindsey responded, “I think we’re too old” (p. 27). Duggins repeatedly shows that as NASA changed missions and vehicles, it also traded in its old astronauts for new ones. The pattern is already set for the postshuttle era.

He also launches into the troubled history of the space shuttle program, doing so in an engaging manner by coupling personal observation with stories recounted by many astronauts and shuttle personnel. For instance, Duggins includes a lighthearted exchange from 1959 between soon-to-be-hired NASA (eventually shuttle) engineer Sam Beddingfield and astronaut Gus Grissom. Beddingfield confesses to Grissom that he wants a job at NASA; Grissom says that NASA has jobs. Beddingfield further admits that he doesn’t know anything about rockets. “That’s OK,” Grissom responds, “neither does NASA” (p. 45).

To his credit, the author does what he says he would do: tell the story of NASA and the end of the space shuttle program. However, it seems to me that Duggins spends too much time on the shuttle and too little on what might follow. The book left me wanting more of the story. I felt that Duggins missed a golden opportunity to explore where few have explored so far—for instance, NASA’s plans beyond the CEV and the prospect of landing people on Mars. Despite this shortcoming, I recommend Final Countdown as a valuable insider’s view of the space shuttle program.

Maj Paul Niesen, USAF, Retired

Scott AFB, Illinois

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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