The End of an Era

Atlantis Final Touchdown
On Thursday, July 21st, in the pre-dawn darkness of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis touched down, marking the end of the last flight in this program and the end of a glorious chapter in US space exploration.

The shuttle fleet of 5 craft, six if you count the non-powered test vehicle Enterprise, were all named after historically  famous explorers’ ships. (Even Enterprise, which never really flew, was named after the Star Trek Enterprise which also never really flew.) The missions and the people behind them have amassed a staggering amount of firsts and records. 21,152 orbits of the Earth. 542,398,878 miles traveled. 1,332 days, 20 hours, in space. Incredible numbers for this 30 year project.

And now, it’s over.

The three remaining Shuttle Orbiters will be deactivated and sent to museums. Discovery, which has flown more than any other shuttle and which deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, will be sent to the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.  Atlantis, the fourth shuttle built, the last shuttle to fly a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and also the last shuttle to fly will be sent to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Endeavour,  built as a replacement for Challenger,  and the first shuttle to fly to the Hubble Space Telescope will be sent to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.  Even the prototype Enterprise, which never flew in space, will be sent to the Intrepid museum in New York City. Ironically, none will sent to the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center, home of the US Astronaut corps, in Houston.

The first tragedy came in 1986 and involved the second shuttle,  Challenger. It’s first flight was April 4,1983. Challenger, which made the first flight  in which astronauts used jet-packs for spacewalks and also in which a satellite was take from orbit, repaired, and re-launched met an untimely end when on January 28, 1986 on it’s 10th launch,  a booster rocket failed, burned through the external fuel tank, and caused an explosion. The result was the break-up of the vehicle at just 73 seconds into the flight. All seven astronauts perished.

The second disaster came to the first shuttle. Columbia first took to the skies on April 12,1981 with the launch and mission that was a verification of the whole system.   Further flights followed with more specific purposes such as satellite launches and scientific work. Columbia also was the only shuttle to land at White Sands in New Mexico.  But at the end of it’s 28th mission on February 1, 2003, Columbia and it’s seven astronauts were lost when the craft broke apart on re-entry.

Will it be the final chapter for U.S. Manned Space Exploration?  It could be.  Astronauts will still visit the International Space Station but that’s not really exploring.  And they will get there by hitching a ride on a Russian Soyuz capsule.  Correction – not “hitching” a ride but paying a healthy $62.7 million per astronaut, round-trip.   Sounds expensive until compared to the Shuttle.  Those flights cost $450 million each, round-trip.  With an average crew of 5, that’s still $90 million per astronaut.

But bargain or not, it’s still embarrassing. The United States, once the world leader in manned space flight is now relegated to paying the rival Russians to get there.  And there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon for future U.S. Manned Space Flights.  With an administration whose actions are anti-space and anti-scientific (unless it’s “Green Projects”) plus a staggering federal deficit, the future of U.S. space exploration seems in doubt.

I’m glad I was able to witness the glory days.  I hope future generations will be able see future glories.

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