July 18, 2011

Atlantis Prepares For Final Flight Home

As the shuttle Atlantis noses back towards planet Earth, many would-be astronauts will look towards the stars and wonder if their chance to fly in orbit will ever be fulfilled.

US astronauts will, for the immediate future, have to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz rocket, renting one of two available seats on the Soyuz, with a third seat on the space vehicle already taken up by pilot at more than $50 million per seat. A new US space craft will be ready to fly sometime around 2015, AFP is reporting.

"Of course it's hard, because we dedicate our lives to fly in space. We are astronauts and it's what we do for a living," explained astronaut Steve Robinson, who has flown on four shuttle missions over the years, to the French news agency.

The world's first reusable space vehicles - Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour -- have comprised the US fleet of space shuttles over the past 30 years to great public admiration. But at a time of US budget austerity, President Barack Obama has opted to end the program at a huge savings. Each of the 135 missions over the years has cost about $450 million each.

At this time in Atlantis' final mission, astronauts are packing unneeded equipment from the International Space Station (ISS), more than 2 tons of old equipment and trash, into a cargo hauler for the last shuttle ride back to Earth, Reuters reports.

"This is really the last train out of town," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said during an inflight interview with Reuters. "I don't think the full magnitude of everything is really going to hit us until after the wheels stop."

The first part of the mission had Ferguson and his three crewmates delivering more than 5 tons of food, clothing, equipment and other supplies for the outpost. In all, the crew put in the equivalent of 150 hours of labor transferring cargo, oversaw a spacewalk by two space station astronauts to pack up a refrigerator-sized coolant pump that broke last year.

The supplies will sustain the station until NASA's newly hired cargo delivery firms begin flying next year. "The space station is actually in very good shape now for the retirement of the space shuttle," flight director Chris Edelen told Reuters.

Future NASA plans for human spaceflight include ramping up development of a new capsule-style spacecraft and heavy-lift boosters that can ferry people beyond the station's orbit where the shuttles cannot fly. NASA hopes the new vehicles will be ready to fly by 2015.

NASA is supporting efforts by four firms -- Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin, a space travel start-up backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos -- with technology development contracts worth $269 million.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington and former NASA official, said that even with the end of the shuttle program there's still plenty for an astronaut to do, especially in support of the ISS.

"There still will be a need for an astronaut corps. It will be at least two American astronauts for the ISS at any particular time. Some will be on training for a mission, some will be recovering from a mission," Pace told AFP.

"There are program support positions on the ground, they will be contributing to both direct mission support for those up there but also working on other programs, other commercial crew programs toward the multiple purpose crew vehicle," he explained.

But there is no denying the number of trained US astronauts dropped 59 percent over the past 10 year -- from 149 in 2000 to 61 today, Pace pointed out.

Astronaut Shannon Walker said she hoped the end of a space shuttle program will not squelch curiosity and enthusiasm of the future generation of students who dream of space travel.

"You go to a school and ask who wants to be an astronaut and everybody raises their hand. I hope the kids will understand we have a space station so there is still a place to go," she told AFP. "The dream for space travel is still alive."


Image Caption: This panoramic view was photographed from the International Space Station toward Earth, looking past space shuttle Atlantis' docked cargo bay and part of the station, including a solar array panel. The photo was taken as the joint complex passed over the southern hemisphere. Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights can be seen on Earth's horizon and a number of stars also are visible. Credit: NASA


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