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Astronaut Olivas: 'Every mission is worth it'

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John "Danny" Olivas

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- As NASA puts the finishing touches on space shuttle Discovery in preparation for launch, veteran astronaut John "Danny" Olivas sat down with CNN.com's Geneen Pipher to discuss the mission, the future of the American space program and how exploration benefits mankind.

CNN.com: A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 79 percent are in favor of the shuttle program continuing. But for those 21 percent -- why is the shuttle worth the risk?

DANNY OLIVAS: When you think about all of the spin-offs that have come out of space exploration and what space means to us as a human race. You can only look at the sky and say that our lives are a lot better because we've been willing to take risks.

Everything from communications satellites to pharmaceuticals and medical advancements that have taken place because of space exploration. We have a number of things that we've done that because they've been direct spin-offs of our principal mission of going into space that have benefited us here on Earth.

The one thing NASA is not -- a publicity agency, so our ability to get out the word is probably not as effective as it could be or should be.

But when you think about it simply from the standpoint of inspiration, children as young as 4 talk about wanting to become astronauts, talk about wanting to go to the moon or go to Mars and go off into space and be space explorers.

These same children become our engineers and scientists of the future and that's what progresses technology. That's what progresses our society. So there are a lot of benefits to space exploration and the space shuttle program now and in the future.

CNN.com: You mention going to Mars. According to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, the public is not generally in favor of a Mars mission. What are the benefits of pushing on to Mars?

OLIVAS: When you think about why you want to go someplace, there are probably two camps. One is because you see something there, and you know what you're going to get when you get back -- that's very tangible. And there is that other aspect, which is you go because of curiosity, of what you might learn and what you might know, and what you'll find out in the future.

And I think that aspect is probably even more exciting because the possibilities are endless.

As we venture on into Mars not only are we going to discover things really hands on things: What is Mars made of? Why is it there? What are intricacies of its geology? But, also, more importantly, how did we get here? We as human beings -- why here? Why in this solar system out of the entire galaxy? And an even larger question: Are we alone?

There are far more questions of that sort that are going to be gained through exploration. To sit here in the comfort of our Earth, we know we will never get those answers, but going and exploring there is a possibility that we will.

CNN.com: Turning to the Discovery program. There are some lingering questions -- do you think we can do it safely?

OLIVAS: Let's put Discovery in context with space exploration in general. Every mission is dangerous every mission is risky. But every mission is worth it. Every mission we fly we learn a little bit more. And the more that we learn, not only about our systems, but about the things were conducting experiments on, the more we learn as a human race.

This is what's going to help us as we venture off into developing a vision for the future and making it a reality. There is risk associated with it. You buy into that risk when you first come into the program. But, in my mind, and in the minds of many of the guys wearing these blue flights suits, that risk is worth it. We wouldn't have it any other way.

CNN.com: Why is it worth it for you?

OLIVAS: When I was a kid, my dad would take me up on top of the roof with a little telescope -- this was in El Paso. I had more questions than he had answers. It really gave me an appreciation for how much there is to learn out there and how little we really know. The more that you learn the further you end up going.

We've done a tremendous amount, when you think about it, in the past 20 years. We've done absolutely tremendous things. We've had rovers roaming around Mars. We've had spacecraft landing on comets. I mean this is "Buck Rogers" type of stuff. And, it's only bounded by our own imagination and by what we're willing to take on. By what we're willing to risk.

CNN.com: How confident are you that NASA has addressed the issues that came up after Columbia.

OLIVAS: I will tell you [these STS-114 astronauts] they are all friends. I know them personally and I worry for them, but no more than I would worry for any other friend taking a trip. I have confidence in what NASA has done.

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