July 21, 2011

Space Shuttle Program Ends With Atlantis Landing

Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-135) made its final landing back on Earth at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. EDT, ending an era that saw the launches of 135 space shuttles in the past 30 years.

"After serving the world for 30 years, the space shuttle has found its place in history," said Christopher Ferguson, the astronaut who commanded Atlantis' final mission, by radio to mission control.

The shuttle came to rest at 5:58 a.m. EDT. At wheels stop, the mission's elapsed time was 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes and 50 seconds. Atlantis made 200 orbits around Earth and logged 5,284,862 miles on its final mission. The landing marked NASA's 25th night landing and the 78th landing at Kennedy Space Center.

The space shuttle program was a key program in the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS), and was also used to launch the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The space shuttle changed the way we view the world and it changed the way we view the Universe," said Commander Ferguson upon landing. "There's a lot of emotion today but one thing's indisputable: America's not going to stop exploring."

The STS-135 crew also consisted of Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. The team delivered more than 9,400 pounds of supplies and 2,677 pounds of food to the ISS, which will sustain space station operations for the next year. The shuttle's Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module, which carried the supplies, also carried back nearly 5,700 pounds of unneeded materials from the station.

A post-landing news conference is scheduled for 10 a.m. EST at Kennedy Space Center. It will be available on NASA TV and at www.nasa.gov/ntv.

Since the very first shuttle launch on April 12, 1981, 355 people from 16 countries flew 852 times aboard the shuttle. NASA's five shuttles logged in more than 542 million miles and hosted more than 2,000 experiments in the fields of Earth, astronomy, biological and materials sciences. The shuttles docked with two space stations, the Russian Mir and the ISS. The shuttles deployed 180 payloads, including satellites.

Retirement of the shuttle program was ordered by the US government, partly due to the high cost of maintaining the fleet. The decision leaves the country with no ship to ferry astronauts into orbit. NASA will now have to rely on Russia's Soyuz capsules to send it's astronauts into space at a cost of roughly $51 million a seat.

NASA is also inviting the private sector to provide a means of space transportation, and is looking for commercial ventures to develop ships to bring astronauts into space. Several companies are already working on possible space ferries, however, these ships are likely not going to be ready for space travel for at least three to four years.

Despite the pre-dawn landing, large swaths of people came out to get a glimpse of the history-making final shuttle landing. A huge cheer went up across the space center as Atlantis touched down safely for the final time.

Besides the news conference NASA will be holding later this morning, the space agency is also planning to celebrate the shuttle program's countless milestones over the next few days, even as thousands of workers will now be laid off due to the project's end.

A welcome home ceremony for the astronauts will be held Friday, July 22, in Houston. The public is invited to attend the 4 p.m. CDT event at NASA's Hangar 990 at Ellington Field. Gates to Ellington Field will open at 3:30 p.m. The ceremony will be broadcast live on NASA Television.

For now, though, this will be a chance for everyone to reflect on what the world's first reusable spacecraft has achieved.

While the orbiter program itself does not officially end for a month, it is likely to take two years or longer to close all activities associated with the shuttle program, such as archiving decades of data from the program.

Atlantis will take its place in history as the final shuttle to make it into space and will spend its retirement as a static display at the Kennedy visitor complex.

NASA hopes to now invest money saved from shuttle operation in a new spaceship and rocket system that will ferry humans beyond the ISS to destinations such as the Moon, Mars, and even asteroids.

The final landing is a quiet ending to a program that, in many eyes, never could live up to the promises made when it was conceived in the 1970s. The dream was to make spaceflight affordable, safe and routine. Instead, it proved risky and highly expensive. Flights have been estimated to cost as much as $500,000,000 (a half billion) each.

"But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it," said former shuttle astronaut Duane Carey in an interview with The Associated Press. "What matters is that we strived mightily to do so -- and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure."

Before Atlantis' final launching, Commander Ferguson was asked about the prospect of eventually going to Mars.

"We have the capability," he said. "We could go there today if our pockets didn't have a bottom to them. But unfortunately they do, and we answer to economic pressure. And that will keep us where we are for a while."

Atlantis alone made 33 flights in its lifetime. It carried 191 astronauts, spent 307 days in orbit, circled the Earth 4,848 times and logged more than 125,000,000 miles.

Marking the end of a 30-year era in space travel, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement had this to say: "At today's final landing of the space shuttle, we had the rare opportunity to witness history. We turned the page on a remarkable era and began the next chapter in our nation's extraordinary story of exploration."

"This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary-and difficult-steps to ensure America's leadership in human spaceflight for years to come," he said.

"I want to send American astronauts where we've never been before by focusing our resources on exploration and innovation, while leveraging private sector support to take Americans to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit," Bolden continued.

"With the bold path President Obama and Congress have set us on, we will continue the grand tradition of exploration," he added.

"Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle . . . but, one day, they may walk on Mars. The future belongs to us. And just like those who came before us, we have an obligation to set an ambitious course and take an inspired nation along for the journey," Bolden said in the statement.

"I'm ready to get on with the next big challenge," he said. "The future is bright for human spaceflight and for NASA. American ingenuity is alive and well. And it will fire up our economy and help us win the future, but only if we dream big and imagine endless possibilities. That future begins today."


Image Caption: Space shuttle Atlantis' bright-white, iconic frame illuminates the darkness as it touches down on the Shuttle Landing Facility's Runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final time. Securing the space shuttle fleet's place in history, Atlantis marked the 26th nighttime landing of NASA's Space Shuttle Program and the 78th landing at Kennedy. Main gear touchdown was at 5:57:00 a.m. EDT, followed by nose gear touchdown at 5:57:20 a.m., and wheelstop at 5:57:54 a.m. On board are STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. On the 37th shuttle mission to the International Space Station, STS-135 delivered more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, equipment and supplies in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module that will sustain station operations for the next year. STS-135 was the 33rd and final flight for Atlantis, which has spent 307 days in space, orbited Earth 4,848 times and traveled 125,935,769 miles. Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett


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