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Special Report

Future of manned space flight

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," April 17, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: We've always had issues with our budget, we've always had financial issues. But we've always had the ability to continue to do big things. And that should not constrain us.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D - VT: I hate to see the shuttle program end, but I'm glad that shuttle is coming here. I think people 50 years from now, 100 years from now will come to the Smithsonian and see the real, real shuttle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: This is the sight over Washington, D.C. today -- 27 years of service, the shuttle Discovery flying back to Dulles airport in a permanent display at the Smithsonian air and space museum annex there, ending its life. A lot of people were out and about looking at it. It was quite a sight over the nation's capital today. What does it mean? Is it a metaphor for the end of manned space flight in the U.S.? We're back with the panel. Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, at least it's at least a temporary -- and I caught a glimpse of it. It was a profoundly exciting but also profoundly sad moment. I mean, after all, is there a better symbol of willed and delivered American decline than the fact that we're watching this spacecraft and we're thrilled, but in fact it's headed to its death to an internment, to an embalming like Lenin at Red Square. This is not a ship that's going to go up in the air again. I saw it once, I saw a launch 10 years ago in one of the most thrilling events I've ever seen. You were three miles away for safety and the sound and the vibration hits you after 20 seconds.

But what I think is the point that's so depressing here is that we were so far ahead in space. The shuttle itself was probably not the best machine. It was OK for its time, but it was inefficient and dangerous. The problem is not the cancellation of the shuttle. It's the fact that we canceled the follow-on and we now have to beg the Russians, as a way to get into space, we who left the Russians in the dust ten years ago in the race to the moon.

Obama speaks of America not doing great things. Well, the manned space program was a great accomplishment and it's now in decline and disintegrating. He spends his money on windmills and algae but he drains it out of NASA. And what is happening is this high-tech stuff he promotes as the future innovation, all these scientists are leaving. They are leaving space, ending up in other places. It will take decade to reconstitute it. It's a very sad ending, thrilling as it was to see it in the air today.

BAIER: A.B., there was a live report on an affiliate here covering this today. And this is what they said, talking to a little child who was dressed up as an astronaut, said do you want to be an astronaut when you grow up? The child said "yes." And the reporter said you know what? We have a live astronaut right over here, this is Dr. Anna Fisher. She actually flew on Discovery. Any advice for Ethan, an aspiring astronaut? She said "Study Russian." Everyone laughed and then the reporter said "Study Russian or perhaps Chinese." But you can hear sadness in some of these people's voices.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE HILL: And I agree with what Charles is saying, but I think this is a relic from another time. It was over 40 years, only $210 billion. That's chicken scratch now. It would never have been started in this political climate, in this fiscal reality. We can no longer afford to dominate in something like manned space exploration. It is true. Charles is right. The shuttle program was supposed to lend a path to more visits to the moon and to Mars. There is no next step, there is no path to Mars.

BAIER: Steve?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I agree with A.B. And I understand why Charles was saddened today. But like Lenin in Red Square, there will be other iterations of manned space flight, they just won't be from the government. I think we are seeing a shift right now, a necessary shift in my view when you're talking about the fact that we have the kind of deficits that we have. We have the debt that we have. Yes it's just a fraction of the debt. But you're talking about programs that might have once been worthwhile, no longer being able to be paid for by the taxpayers by borrowing from the Chinese to fund these kinds of projects. And I think we are seeing a shift from the private sector that started several years ago and will continue, I think, apace in the future.

BAIER: Two on one here, Charles.

KRAUTHAMMER: I know, and they're both wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

STODDARD: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

KRAUTHAMMER: There will be humans in space. But for the next decade, it's gonna be Russian and the Chinese will be on the moon, walking in the footprints that we laid and we abandoned.

BAIER: That is it for the panel, but stay tuned for a tough task that brought out some big names.

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