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Space shuttle: What have we learned?

By Steve Kastenbaum, CNN Radio
The space shuttle Endeavour is set to return to Earth in mid-May after completing its last voyage.
The space shuttle Endeavour is set to return to Earth in mid-May after completing its last voyage.
  • NASA's space shuttle program is drawing to a close after 30 years
  • For many, it's a challenge to name technological advances from program in everyday life
  • Editor: Astrophysics and planetary science advances outweigh technological ones
  • Science that shuttle made possible will continue to result in new discoveries well into future

Kennedy Space Center, Florida (CNN) -- Following an expected 48-hour delay, six astronauts are set to blast off into space Sunday on the space shuttle Endeavour. It's the orbiter's last voyage and the second-to-last mission in the 30-year-long space shuttle program.

President Barack Obama, the first family and another high-profile guest -- Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded in January -- are among the notables expected to attend the launch in addition to the more than 500,000 on hand to watch around Kennedy Space Center.

Giffords' husband, Cmdr. Mark Kelly, will lead the mission to the international space station.

Doctors have said they believe Giffords has made significant progress in her rehabilitation since being shot in the head three months ago at an event in Tucson, and they have greenlit her travel to Florida.

"It's something she's been looking forward to for a long time," Kelly said at Kennedy Space Center, where he and his crew are making final preparations for the launch.

"She's been working really hard to make sure that her doctors would permit her to come, and she's more than medically ready to be here, and she's excited about making this trip."

Final launch for space shuttle Endeavour

After Endeavour returns to Earth in mid-May, there will be one last opportunity to watch a space shuttle lift off. The shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch at the end of June. It will mark the end of NASA's space shuttle program after three decades.

As shuttle program ends, astronauts want to keep flying

The program conducted a tremendous amount of scientific research and delivered numerous satellites into orbit, but in some ways fell short of its original purpose.

"The shuttle has been disappointing in terms of its delivery of payloads into space," said George Musser, space and physics editor at the magazine Scientific American. "The idea was to bring down the cost of launching a kilogram into orbit to something like $100 per kilogram. In fact, it's probably about a hundred times that ... so it has been very disappointing in that regard."

Giffords travels to attend shuttle launch

Musser was a high school freshman when the first shuttle mission took place in 1981. He said it fueled his interest in science and astronomy. "The shuttle was the most complicated machine ever built by human beings. It's an incredible machine," Musser said.

Over the years, he watched shuttle launch after shuttle launch take place while many Americans lost interest. To many, a launch turned into something routine and mundane despite two disastrous accidents that took the lives of 14 astronauts.

Today, it's a challenge to name technological advances seen in everyday life that were a direct result of the work done on the space shuttle program.

"NASA, of course, will tell you that there have been all of these technological spinoffs. We got memory foam, all those kinds of material innovations that come from the space shuttle," Musser said. "But I personally think that the benefits of the space shuttle can't be reduced to those practical spinoffs."

Musser said he believes the advances in astrophysics and planetary science far outweigh the technological advances that came as a result of the program. He cited the Magellan mission to Venus, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo probe to the Jupiter system as examples of space programs in which the space shuttle played a central role.

"These are just incredible instruments that have transformed astronomers' and society's view of the universe," Musser said.

He points to the shuttle-delivered Hubble Space Telescope's discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace.

First commander reflects on Endeavour's final mission

While the space shuttle program is coming to an end, the science that it made possible will continue to result in new discoveries well into the future. When Endeavour lifts off Friday, it will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the international space station.

Valued at more than $2 billion, the seven-ton machine will examine cosmic rays coming from exploding stars and black holes.

It could lead to discoveries that explain how the universe is put together. It may even enable researchers to identify the elusive dark matter -- the invisible stuff in space that scientists suspect makes up the majority of the universe.

Most importantly, it may bring us one step closer to answering the age-old question: Why are we here?