'Goodbye' To Atlantis And Space Shuttle Era
And now, the journey has ended too for Atlantis, and with it, NASA's space shuttle era.
Shuttle Atlantis and its four veteran astronauts landed Thursday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing the shuttle program's 135th and final flight.
The 13-day mission to the International Space Station was to primarily deliver more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, other equipment and food to sustain the orbiting lab for the next year; more than half that amount in waste was also taken back to Earth.
“We had a nice pre-dawn landing,” said Chris Ferguson, commander, during a crew post-landing new conference. “Goodbye to a good friend.”
Ferguson's crew includes pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. They comprise part of the 355 individuals from 16 countries who have flown on a shuttle since the first mission blasted off on April 12, 1981. During the 30 years of launchings, more than 542 million miles were logged and more than 2,000 science experiments were conducted. The shuttles have also docked with two space stations, the Russian Mir and the International Space Station; and deployed 180 payloads, including satellites.
“[T]oday, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight,” said NASA Administrator and former shuttle commander Charlie Bolden, at a Kennedy employee appreciation event following the landing. “Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle but, one day, they may walk on Mars.... And just like those who came before us, we have an obligation to set an ambitious course.” The crowd waved hand-sized American flags; they took photographs of Atlantis, which stood yards away.
Atlantis, like the rest of the fleet, was built in Palmdale, Calif., by Rockwell International. Enterprise was the first orbiter but never flew in space. Then came Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, respectively. The vehicles are the “space plane” portion of the shuttle.
The world's first reusable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit consists of three major components: The orbiter (where the crew sits; generally referred to as the shuttle), the twin solid rocket boosters (attached to the orbiter and provide much of the launch thrust; they stay attached to the orbiter during the first two minutes of flight before separating, landing into the ocean and getting retrieved), and the huge rust-colored external tank (“gas tank” for the orbiter and burns up in the atmosphere after launching). As a whole, the shuttle launches like a rocket; only the orbiter returns to Earth after a mission, landing like a plane.
As with many things NASA-related, the shuttle program was not without political and technical challenges, and times of soul-searching. Two of the most high-profile cases were the explosions of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, which killed all 14 astronauts onboard. Each accident forced NASA to ground the program for roughly two years, and revise its decision-making and safety culture. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush announced plans to retire the shuttle once assembly of the space station was completed.
The life of the shuttle program has cost $113.7 billion (not adjusted for inflation), according to the agency.
Atlantis launched on its final mission on July 8 from Kennedy, home of the shuttle liftoffs. The orbiter will spend the rest of its days on display at the center. The remainder of the fleet: Endeavour will head to Los Angeles, Discovery to Washington, D.C., and Enterprise to New York.
"I really want to thank the space shuttle team and the Space Shuttle Program...We gave them a tremendous challenge to fly and execute these missions and to finish strong and I can tell you today that the team accomplished every one of those objectives," said Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier at the post-landing news conference. "I'd also like to thank the nation for allowing us to have these thirty years to go use the shuttle system."
There is currently no available American replacement for the shuttle.
In the post-shuttle era, NASA plans to rely on American commercial spacecraft to ferry crew and cargo to the space station. However, the commercial crew option is not expected to become available until by 2015. During the roughly four-year gap, the agency will continue paying for seats (costs cover services such as astronaut training abroad also) on Russian Soyuz capsules to carry astronauts to the space station, which is expected to stay in operation through at least 2020.
Meanwhile, Congress has directed the agency to develop a heavy-lift rocket (Space Launch System or SLS) and crew capsule (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or MPCV) to ultimately take humans beyond low-Earth orbit. An initial version of the SLS/MPCV must also become available by 2016 to serve as a backup system to carry crew and cargo to the the space station if commercial- or foreign-supplied ones cannot.
While the current law pertaining to the SLS/MPCV does not set any deadlines for specific manned deep-space missions, NASA's goal is that the SLS/MPCV could take humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s---destinations President Barack Obama last year challenged the agency to explore.
NASA has yet to announce a final architectural design for the SLS, and its integrated cost and flight schedule with the MPCV---information the agency is behind in providing to congressional members, who recently threatened to open an investigation. “It’s a shame we have to even consider or be thinking about doing that,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House science committee, at a hearing last week. “[T]his program will likely cost tens of billions of dollars over many years so this will likely be the most important decision I make as the NASA Administrator and I want to get it right,” Bolden responded before the committee. He added that while the final SLS decisions are expected in the next couple of months, unmanned test flights of the SLS/MPCV probably won't begin until 2017 and crewed missions probably won't begin earlier than the 2020s.
In a Pew poll released earlier this month, 58 percent of Americans said it is essential that the U.S. continue to be a world leader in space exploration; 38 percent of Americans disagreed. As to whether the shuttle program has been a good investment, 55 percent of Americans thought so; 36 percent of them did not. Approval of the program was higher in August 1981, four months after the first shuttle flight: 66 percent of Americans said it was a good investment.