Atlantis Landing Marks the End of the Legendary Space Shuttle Program

With the safe landing in Florida of Atlantis, NASA’s ambitious 30-year space shuttle program has officially come to an end.  Immediately after landing, Chris Ferguson,  the Atlantis commander, lauded the shuttle program and the rest of the spacecraft fleet.  “The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it’s changed the way we view our universe,” he said.  “There are a lot of emotions today, but one thing is indisputable. America’s not going to stop exploring. Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship, Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end.”

Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who currently is the NASA administrator, preferred to look ahead.  “At today’s final landing of the space shuttle, we had the rare opportunity to witness history,” he said.  “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.”

The United States ended the space shuttle program once the International Space Station, which was half-built at the time, was finished, a goal that was achieved this year.

“Every vehicle has its life,” said Atlantis astronaut Sandy Magnus.  “We’ve known the shuttle is going to retire for a very long time. Knowing this was the normal plan, you want to celebrate the shuttle. You want to acknowledge all the hard work that people have done for 30 years because it is an important part of our country.  It’s hard to say goodbye,” she added. “It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.”  The space station, an orbital research outpost, is a $100 billion project of 16 nations that was finished this year after more than 10 years of construction.

Writing in the Las Vegas News-Sun, Steve Sebelius says that “On paper, NASA’s next goal is to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, and then Mars in the middle of the 2030s.  That’s a long time, by any calculation.  Yes, we’re facing the worst deficits and debt in the nation’s history.  And yes, space exploration is expensive.  (Although perhaps not as much as you think: The Associated Press recently reported that the entire 30-year shuttle program — all 135 missions — cost $196 billion, or about $1.45 billion per mission.  By contrast, a recent Pentagon spending bill approved by the House for a single year was $649 billion, or more than three times as much.)”

Unfortunately, the end of the space shuttle program does not come without some layoffs at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Approximately 9,000 people who work for NASA contractors will lose their jobs, said Denise Beasley, a spokeswoman for Brevard Workforce, a county agency that helps space employees find new positions.  Five graduates of the class of 1975 at Astronaut High School in Titusville, 12 miles from the space center, have few prospects.  “We’re all 54 years old, and we should be able to relax, and instead we’re all starting over,” said Tish Lawing, whose husband works for a firm that helps remove shuttle waste; her father worked in the space center’s launch-control center.  “This is going to be a ghost town.”  Titusville, a city of 43,761 and neighboring Melbourne promote themselves as located on the 72- mile “Space Coast.”  Home prices, already falling with the national housing bubble, will be “exacerbated” by the shuttle’s end, Moody’s Investors Service said.

NASA intends to use private companies to replace some of the functions of the shuttle program.  A launch under that system is unlikely before 2015, William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, said.

Writing on the DVice website, Raymond Wong says that “Never one to miss the chance to boast about its own space achievements, Russia officially sounded off the sirens with a declaration that human space travel is now in the “era of the Soyuz.”  The official statement put out by Russia’s space agency Roskosmos said, ‘From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability.’  Is that a dig at the Shuttle program?

It sure sounds like one.  For those who don’t know much about Russia’s Soyuz rockets, here’s the quick low-down: they’re basically vertical rocket and capsule systems that have been around since the early 1960s, parachuting back to safety upon returning to Earth instead of landing on a runway, like the shuttle.  Of course, The Soyuz capsule isn’t the same one from the ’60s — Russia has made improvements.  Without a means to transport humans back into space (until 2016, at least), the U.S.’s only solution will be to piggyback on a Russian Soyuz rocket, wait to see how that modified Atlas V rocket works or how the private sector will step in.”

There is significant disagreement over the decision to end the space shuttle program.  In an Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Tribune, Storer H. Rowley writes that “English poet Robert Browning wrote that a person’s ‘reach should exceed his grasp.’  That’s always been the story of America, from our pioneers to our astronauts.  Exploration is in our DNA.  We have been reaching for the stars for more than half a century in space-faring alone, limited only by our collective imagination, the dangers of highly experimental space missions and the constraints of earthbound budgets.  Yet, with space shuttle Atlantis returning from its final 13-day mission to the International Space Station, there is no specific national plan to launch Americans back into space from U.S. soil — no plan to head back to the moon, no urgent strategy or timetable to head to Mars or even an asteroid — for the foreseeable future.

“That is not A-OK.  It’s unfortunate for a nation that led the way in space exploration and dominated science and technology with its innovation and inspiration.  The space program led to a generation of students inspired to pursue technology and science.  It helped lead to inventions like GPS in our cell phones, global satellite communications and medical imaging.  It spurred private industry and job growth, and the kind of discovery and inspiration so vitally needed now as American students try to catch up on science and math skills in an increasingly competitive and globalizing world.  Atlantis sped homeward on the 135th and final voyage of the 30-year space shuttle program.  When it returns to Earth, heaven can wait for now, it seems, or at least the final frontier and the future of manned spaceflight in America.  U.S. astronauts are stuck with only one near-term option, hitching expensive rides on Russian rockets, to get back to the space station.  Without a clear U.S. goal and a timetable to achieve it, many Americans worry about the future of the U.S. space program.  America is hardly at square one, but in the race for space, it has led the way, so this hiatus of five or 10 years, maybe more, is deeply troubling,” Rowley concluded.

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