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The End of an Era: Celebrating the Space Shuttle Program

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 21st, it marked the last time a U.S. space shuttle would probably ever fly. The landing effectively ended the 30 year shuttle program. From 1981 to 2011, NASA flew 133 successful shuttle flights. Put another way, approximately every three months during that time period, NASA launched and landed a shuttle.


The last of NASA’s shuttle astronauts. The STS-135/Atlantis crew included (from left): Mission Specialist Rex Walheim; Pilot Doug Hurley; Commander Chris Ferguson; and Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus. (Image: NASA)

Mission Accomplished
When the Atlantis mission ended, it signaled what many believed as the end of America’s commitment to ongoing space exploration. However, NASA was quick to point out that the end of the Shuttle program does not mean an end to NASA; America’s space agency recently began new, unmanned missions that will send back images and other data from the far reaches of space, as well as from the surface and atmosphere of planets such as Mars and Jupiter.

The Space Shuttle program demonstrated that NASA had achieved some basic mastery of space travel. While early NASA programs like Mercury were mainly trying to see if manned orbits of Earth were even possible, the Space Shuttle program made regular journeys into space seem as routine and safe as a commuter’s trip to work.

The Risks (and Rewards) of Space Exploration 
Despite an enviable track record, two NASA Space Shuttle missions ended in disaster. The Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven-member crew were destroyed during its 1986 lift-off, due to launch failure. The shock of the disaster was so great that news of the tragedy spread like wildfire; a poll afterward revealed that 85 percent of all Americans had heard of the disaster within one hour of it taking place.

Many years later, in 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia experienced mechanical failure during its decent into the Earth’s atmosphere – its crew of seven were killed when the craft broke apart upon re-entry. Neither accident derailed the Shuttle program, but each showed that exploring the heavens remains a risky business – and one that sometimes means we pay a terrible price, in human life.


The Atlantis lands…one last time…marking the end of three decades of  Space Shuttle service. 

On the other hand, despite these tragedies, the Space Shuttle program racked up an impressive list of achievements in its three decades of service. In many of the program’s finest moments, the Space Shuttles were used to assist larger scientific missions.

For example, when NASA needed to get huge space telescopes like Galileo and Hubble into orbit, the shuttle was the go-to choice for getting them in place (in part because the Shuttle orbiter – which resembles an oversized jet – had a large cargo bay that could hold space telescopes and satellites). Likewise, when astronauts needed to be transported to or from the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle operated like an orbital taxi, ready to deliver human cargo as well as replacement parts and other equipment to the ISS.

Coming Home
The Space Shuttle Atlantis’ last flight proceeded completely according to plan, and began on July 8th. As usual, the orbiter was attached piggy-back style to two rocket boosters and a huge external tank of fuel. At the moment of ignition, the rockets (fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen) produced approximately 2.8 million pounds of thrust to lift the entire shuttle stack (as it was called) off the mobile launch platform and begin the shuttle’s skyward climb.

After about 2 minutes, the solid rocket boosters detached from the stack and floated by parachute into the Atlantic Ocean, where they were recovered. Meanwhile, the orbiter remained attached to the external tank for another 7 minutes, until the shuttle had reached a speed of 17,500 mph, which is the rate required to maintain a low orbit around the Earth. At this point, the engines were shut down and the orbiter was separated from the external tank, which burned up completely when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Then the Atlantis proceeded on its mission alone.


The shuttle on re-entry, as seen from the International Space Shuttle. 

For most of its journey home, the Shuttle acted much like a glider. First, the crew fired its orbital maneuvering system engines, which caused the Shuttle to descend from orbit and start re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Then the Shuttle flew like the jet it appeared to be, relying on its aerodynamics since it had already jettisoned its main rockets. The landing on July 21st was predictably smooth, and was only remarkable because it marked the end of the program.

The End of the Era: Where to Go See History
Now, the U.S. Space Shuttle program is history. Of the original orbiter vehicles constructed, two were lost completely in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. The other four Shuttles, however, are still intact and will be placed on permanent display where interested space fans can check out the vehicles that defined America’s space program for 30 years:

Shuttle Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex (Florida)

Shuttle Endeavour will be on display at the California Science Center (Los Angeles)

Shuttle Enterprise will be kept at the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum (New York)

Shuttle Discovery will be housed at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (Chantilly, Virginia)

Where Do We Go From Here?
Due in part to funding restraints, NASA will now concentrate on unmanned space missions that rely on space telescope, probes and planetary rovers in order to keep uncovering the secrets of the universe. In the short term, NASA will be sending its astronauts into space via Russian shuttle flights, at an estimated cost of $50 million per astronaut, per mission.


The future of space will probably be commercially controlled; Virgin Galactic is taking reservations now. 

As for low-orbit missions, many observers are predicting that the next wave of space flight will be pioneered by private companies who are each eager to offer excursions into space for private citizens who hunger to experience the thrill of traveling far above our natural planet. Companies such as Virgin are already working on getting individuals into near-space, and there’s ample research data that suggests that many wealthy private citizens are eager to pay hefty prices to experience the sensations of space travel.

Virgin Galactic is now booking reservations for flights into Earth’s thermosphere, about 68 miles above the earth. During the 3.5-hour flight (which starts at $200,000), passengers can look forward to about six minutes of weightlessness and the views of a lifetime. In September 2010, Virgin chief Richard Branson predicted Galactic would begin its unique passenger service in approximately 18 months.

But just because the shuttle program is over doesn’t mean you can’t experience an out-of-this world adventure in science and engineering. Space camp doesn’t exist anymore but computer summer camps do, and they can give you the skills to be a new-age digital explorer.

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posted by Phill Powell in News Blog and have No Comments

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