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Looking Back on Shuttles Facing 'Final Countdown'

A quarter-century after the first space shuttle blasted off from Cape Canaveral in 1981, the shuttle program is still struggling to find its true mission.

It's a criticism many space program observers have made as the shuttle program comes to an end in 2010. In his new book, Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program, Pat Duggins, a senior news analyst from member station WMFE in Central Florida, recounts the controversial history of the shuttle program, which has been marred by two fatal disasters and exorbitant costs.

Duggins, who has covered more than 85 shuttle launches, began his career during the 1986 Challenger disaster, interviewing witnesses and offering eyewitness accounts as wreckage from the shuttle came in to the Kennedy Space Center hangar.

Duggins traces the shuttle's history, looking at NASA's secretive missions, and its more well-known missions to supply the International Space Station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Following the disintegration of the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003, Duggins examines NASA's struggle to rebound and define the shuttle program's mission until its retirement.

He includes interviews with many key shuttle personnel, including astronaut John Young, who was the commander on the 1981 Columbia mission. He also looks past 2010 to NASA's next major effort: the Orion Crew Exploration Capsule, which is slated to go to the moon and Mars.

Scott Simon spoke with Duggins about the shuttle program and its legacy.

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Pat Duggins
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.