â??Hi, this is Pat Duggins

UCF Book Festival
8:45 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday,
April 17, at UCF Arena
University of Central Florida



If, like me, you keep a tuner permanently parked on the local Public Radio station, the above headline should give your ears a Pavlovian perk. For 24 years, Pat Duggins was a mainstay on WMFE-FM (90.7), and his Kennedy Space Center—based coverage of NASA could be heard nationwide via NPR. In 2009, Duggins left the beleaguered station ("on my own terms," he says) for Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he is now news director at Alabama Public Radio network, operated by the University of Alabama. This weekend, he returns home to his alma mater for the inaugural UCF Book Festival, held in association with the Morgridge International Reading Center.

Duggins and I spoke on the phone a week before the festival, where he'll sign copies of the newly released paperback edition of Final Countdown, his 2007 hardback subtitled NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. His voice may be off Orlando's airwaves, but it's clear his heart hasn't left town. Within the first minute he mentioned that he and his wife are "crestfallen" that they won't make it to the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival this year.

"I miss Orlando, `and` miss my listeners a whole lot," he adds. His wife is still living here, closing up their local homes, while Duggins stays "in a bachelor pad with my Farrah Fawcett poster on the wall." They hope to be reunited "in time for the next college football season," he says, so they can "cheer for the Crimson Tide together."

Duggins' interest in spaceflight was incipient long before his entrance into broadcasting. He was a military brat stationed with his family on an Air Force base in Anchorage when the first moon landing occurred in 1969. By 1971, they'd been transferred to Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral in time for him to witness firsthand from their front yard Apollo 14's liftoff, followed by Voyager, Pioneer 10 and numerous others. Following graduation from UCF in 1984, he briefly became a weekend anchor for an ABC affiliate in Gainesville, but left for lack of interest in the stories he was covering.

Duggins returned to Central Florida and was a rookie reporter at WMFE on Jan. 28, 1986, when a colleague ran past his office yelling that the shuttle blew up. "I'm like, oh right, yeah, sure.... Then I thought, maybe this bears some looking into." Since no one else at the station had been assigned to cover the Challenger launch, Duggins says he "grabbed a set of car keys and a recorder, and just followed the mushroom cloud to the Kennedy Space Center." That day, Duggins' reportage for NPR began and set him on the course to becoming the national network's resident space expert.

Our conversation came a day after the final scheduled nighttime shuttle launch, which provoked a chuckle from Duggins when I pointed it out. "It's the last ever until NASA has another one," he quipped, recalling that he had been interviewed by former Morning Edition anchor Bob Edwards for the first supposedly final night launch, which was followed by another and then another. While conceding that they were "always exciting and interesting," his strongest memory of the night liftoffs is the resulting traffic afterward.

"Ordinarily it would take me 10 minutes to drive from KSC to I-95. My first night launch was in 1989," he reminisces. "It took me so long to drive between the cape and I-95 that by the time I got there, I estimated that the shuttle had gone around the earth twice."

Nostalgia aside, Duggins isn't among those decrying the shuttle's imminent demise. "I think that `the shuttle retirement` is going to be tragic for Florida. There are going to be a lot of really good people who are going to be losing their jobs over this. But from the big picture standpoint, it had to happen." Duggins believes this is an opportunity to advance beyond the "low-earth orbit" that he feels NASA has been stuck in since 1972, and begin exploring the greater galaxy — "If we don't abandon space altogether," he adds.

When cynics wonder what NASA has done for earthlings lately (Tang and Velcro no longer count), Duggins has a raft of answers. Your scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses (derived from spacesuit visors), invisible orthodontic braces (from heat-resistant tiles) and Black & Decker cordless drill (from extra-vehicular repair tools) all depend on technology developed with space-program dollars. And while WALL-E taught me that anything humans can do in space, robots can do better. Duggins disagrees, citing the late Carl Sagan's defense of manned space flght. Robots are less expensive to entertain on long journeys, but they're less likely to discover microscopic life in a Martian mega-trench like "Valles Marineris," he explains. Also, they aren't dexterous enough for delicate repairs like those performed on Hubble ("like handling fine china with boxing gloves.")

Despite Duggin's space-inspired travels — he's lectured for Harvard, the Smithsonian and NASA engineers in Washington, D.C. — there's one step he isn't willing to take yet: a ticket on Virgin Galactic or any similar outfit offering space tourism. Truth be told, he admits, "My wife has to put a knife to my back to get me on a log flume."

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