Atlantis : end of a mission, end of an era

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by a Newsnet reporter 

The first shuttle mission was in April 1981 and the last US space shuttle mission ended at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral with a successful touchdown one minute late at 5:57 local time (10.57am BST) on Thursday 21st July. 

The words from Commander Christopher Ferguson of Atlantis : ‘Mission complete, Houston,’ ended not only a mission but also an era.  ‘Job well done, America,’ replied Mission Control, and with the 135th fleet mission the 30-year long shuttle programme terminated – the last thing left to do was tow Atlantis into her hanger.

Atlantis’s 13 day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) involved delivering  : science equipment for the space station;  a full year’s supply of food, clothing and other supplies in case the commercial deliveries get delayed – the international partners (Russia, Europe, Japan) will carry the payloads o the ISS for the present.   Atlantis took back tons of ISS rubbish to Earth on the return leg of the voyage.  Atlantis itself faced a mission  emergency while docked to the ISS when a piece of space junk passed by narrowly missing the space shuttle, so rubbish cannot simply be jettisoned into surrounding space.

Nasa’s five space shuttles (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis) : saved the Hubble Space Telescope; built the space station and carried out numerous scientific experiments. 

Danger, unfortunately, is an intrinsic part of space travel and the shuttle has had its share of disasters with two of the shuttles – Challenger and Columbia – being destroyed, one just after  launch, the other during the journey back to Earth.  Fourteen souls were lost, yet despite these tragedies the shuttle programme persevered.

The shuttle programme carried 355 people from 16 countries into space and back to Earth. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, became the oldest person ever in space, thanks to the shuttle – he was 77 at the time, he turned 90 this week.

Americans will, for at least the near future, travel into space from Russia in Russian Soyuz spacecraft and cost the US tax-payer $60mn per astronaut.  The next launch of an American from US soil will not be before another three to five years, perhaps longer and may well be via private enterprise built/NASA funded space shuttle-like spacecraft.

This final voyage means 3,200 of the shuttle programme’s 5,500 contract workers lose their jobs today and within a month a skeleton staff of 1000 will be left and remain with NASA until Atlantis and the other shuttles Discovery and Endeavor are transported to museums.

It’s all about money, NASA is willing to sacrifice the shuttle programme to attain more ambitious targets using the private sector.  Obama intends that US astronauts land on an asteroid by 2025 then onto Mars by the mid-2030s.  The first commercial supply will hopefully be this year from Cape Canaveral via a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket-spacecraft.  The private company SpaceX, says it can transport people to the ISS within three years but ISS managers believe five years is more realistic.

After decommissioning, Atlantis will go on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Complex.  Discovery, will rest in a Smithsonian hangar in Virginia.  Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

The end of an era that climaxed with ‘the first man on the Moon’ and the construction of the ISS and Hubble, but it is in the nature of humans to explore and in the new era to come, one might hope one day to hear the expression, ‘the first woman on Mars’.

‘to boldly go’…