Spaced Out: Atlantis Launch Brings End of an Era

It may have seemed like a long time in the making, a notable era has ended this morning with the launch of the American space shuttle Atlantis, the final launch for United States shuttle missions. After 30 years of groundbreaking missions, Atlantis becomes the last in the line of many shuttles like it to head towards its retirement. Here it will join others of its kind, like NASA’s Discovery and Endeavour, and become a monument in this country’s history. 

“We’re going to have a party on the day of the launch,” stated Michael “Rich” Clifford, the deputy program manager for the Atlantis shuttle at Boeing Co., and former astronaut.

And everybody has plenty of reasons to celebrate.

From its first launch back in 1981, the NASA shuttle missions have prepared 134 space shuttles for launch—the final flight of Atlantis being the 135th, with its own repertoire of now 33 launches under its belt.

But although the launchings have been a sight to see for many years and have provided the world with countless images of a space never before seen, it did not come without its high costs. And a big cost it tuned out to be.

From the initial space race that started it all, the NASA shuttle missions have absorbed money by the truckload. Costing a pretty penny and well over the intended $90 billion budget (more than double the originally anticipated costs), the elaborate program began to weigh heavy in the United States pocket book. 

Former astronaut Duane Carey, who is perhaps best known for his own flight back in 2002 as pilot of STS-109, agrees that NASA may have fell a little short.  “But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it…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.”

So what does this mean for space exploration now?

NASA deputy administrator, Lori Garver, recently alluded to the idea that now NASA would be able to take on more “ambitious goals” and manned space flights will be left to other private companies. This can also mean that when it becomes necessary to send astronauts to the International Space Station, the responsibility will more than likely fall to the Russians—with NASA offering outside support.

All in all, today will become yet another memorable day in American history as the four individuals who make up this last crew—commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim—suit up and take their seats for the last time.

The purpose of their trip is to pass on supplies to the Raffaello logistics module, helping to keep those in orbit stocked until 2012.  And after a 12-day stint outside of the atmosphere, they will return back to Earth—another day sure to gather much attention and fame.

“I’d have to say [that] after the last 30 years, certainly our program and these shuttles, throughout all of their missions, have traveled very well.  And after 135’s landing, I think we can say at that point that we’ve arrived,” remembers NASA test director Jeff Spaulding.

Over the years the United States shuttle missions have come to be as much a part of the American way of life as baseball and apple pie. Be with it all said and done, it will be a new age that we enter with new dreams and new technologies.

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