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As the Space Shuttle Program draws to a close, Boeing employees from around the country reflect on their time spent working on the program.

Reflecting on the Space Shuttle

NBC correspondent Jay Barbree and the United States' first man in space Alan Shepard

Photo courtesy of Jay Barbree

NBC correspondent Jay Barbree (left) and the United States' first man in space Alan Shepard worked together to republish "MOON SHOT: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landing" as an e-book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American in space.

As the Space Shuttle Program draws to a close with the end of Atlantis’ final mission to the International Space Station, Boeing employees, people around the United States and the world are reflecting on the years spent working on or watching the progress of the shuttle system. Among them is NBC correspondent Jay Barbree, who has dedicated his career to the space program and is the only journalist to have covered all 166 U.S. manned spaceflights since the United States sent its first man into space in 1961.

“Everyone on the space program was all for the shuttle because we originally saw it as a space truck that could haul all sorts of things into space, which it did,” said Barbree. “It could also be the vehicle that would build space stations and launch stations to Mars and take us back to the moon. We were very enthusiastic about it.”

When the first space shuttle, Columbia, took off on its first launch attempt on April 12, 1981, Barbree said that it came as a surprise to everyone, probably even the astronauts, since there had been so many technical issues. “We had tested the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury before – even tested chimpanzees in the Mercury spacecraft before we put astronauts on board,” Barbree said. “But here were two astronauts sitting up there on a vehicle that had never flown. It had been wind-tunnel tested and through every other test that you could give it, but it had never actually flown, so when those huge solid rocket boosters and the three main engines ignited and lifted off, we all were so excited.”

“From a standpoint of accomplishment, I think the repair of the Hubble space telescope is the most memorable mission completed by crews aboard the space shuttle,” says Barbree. “The fact that they could go up there, do space walks and do work as tedious as it was to repair Hubble – basically putting a pair of contact lenses on Hubble to make it work –  was really something amazing. And look what we’ve gotten out of it: a complete rewrite of the history of the universe by Hubble. It’s fantastic.”

That excitement was felt all over the nation, and one of Barbree’s on-air partners, who had never seen a spacecraft or rocket launch, flew down from New York to cover the event. When the engines ignited, Barbree’s partner was so taken aback that he only stood and watched, while Barbree had to jump in and complete the reporting for liftoff. “It was astonishing to see that vehicle launch,” Barbree recalled.

With all the astonishing moments witnessed throughout the shuttle’s history, Barbree has also been present for the tragic. “In the process of covering the Challenger launch I saw it go to pieces in the sky and knew immediately what I was looking at because I’d covered so many early rocket launches,” Barbree remembers. Two days later he broke the news of the cause of the accident – an O-ring seal failure in one of the solid rocket boosters. Nearly 20 years later, Barbree witnessed the second major disaster.

“We saw the pieces coming across Texas from the shuttle Columbia and again we knew what was taking place. It was a very sickening thing for all of us,” said Barbree.

Barbree acknowledges how the program’s workforce and astronaut crews bravely continued to learn from these accidents and successfully complete more than 130 missions throughout the past 30 years.

“From a standpoint of accomplishment, I think the repair of the Hubble space telescope is the most memorable mission completed by crews aboard the space shuttle,” says Barbree. “The fact that they could go up there, do space walks and do work as tedious as it was to repair Hubble – basically putting a pair of contact lenses on Hubble to make it work –  was really something amazing. And look what we’ve gotten out of it: a complete rewrite of the history of the universe by Hubble. It’s fantastic.”

After covering 166 U.S. manned space flight missions, Barbree is clear on one thing: America needs to stay in today’s space race, and NASA’s new Commercial Crew Transportation System (CCTS) can get the nation back into space soonest.

Boeing is one of four companies that are working with NASA on Phase 2 of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, an incremental step in an industry-NASA partnership to provide transportation to the International Space Station (ISS), replacing the space shuttle. Boeing’s goal is to achieve operational capability by 2015 and is currently on schedule to do just that with its CST-100 crew module, a human-rated capsule designed to bring up to seven people, or a combination of people and cargo, to the ISS and other potential destinations in Low Earth Orbit.

“Let’s go with what we know and reach into the bag of things that work,” said Barbree. “That’s the key.”

Even though America’s space exploration will be on hold following the completion of space shuttle Atlantis’ final mission and pending development of the next vehicle, Barbree’s passion for space, the vehicles that brought humans there and the workforce and crews that made it all possible is unbending.

Barbree says that the greatest honor he’s ever had was to be asked by Alan Shepard – America’s first man in space – to coauthor his book, “Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings.” He will spend the next couple of years making sure the book is a continued success since it’s been recently formatted as an e-book.

“The launch of the very last mission, for me, was as astonishing as the first one,” Barbree reflected. “I am still enthralled by each one.”