Twelve days ago on July 8 at 11:29 a.m., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched their final shuttle, Atlantis, thus ending a remarkable 30 years with the United States Space Shuttle Program.
The last mission STS-135 for shuttle Atlantis was a simple 13 day expedition to the International Space Station where its crew of four will resupply the station, transfer an experiment titled Robotic Refueling Mission and remove a failed ammonia pump. The STS-135 crew members include: commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.
According to their latest mission status briefing, the crew is doing well, having woken up to the song “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland and deployed the 180th and final payload in NASA’s space shuttle history—a small satellite named PicoSat to be used to study solar cells.
Final preparations for landing are underway. Atlantis and its crew are scheduled to land at 5:56 a.m. on July 21 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Station in Florida.
Over the past three decades, through 135 missions, the United States Space Shuttle Program carried 852 individuals into flight, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted more than 2,000 experiments, and built the largest structure known-to-man in space, the International Space Station.
Over 16 countries were represented: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United States. Over half a billion miles were flown. Over 1,000 days were spent in space.
NASA’s head administrator, Charles Bolden, made comments on the shuttle’s legacy.
From the early exploits of Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and Robert Peary to the breakthrough journeys of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, Americans have always been a curious people—bold enough to imagine new worlds, ingenious enough to chart a course to them and courageous enough to go for it.
As this chapter in space exploration comes to a close, American shuttles provided by NASA are well on the way to being replaced by new designs from private companies. This change allows NASA to focus on reaching destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, working toward exploration of the solar system.
SCAD astronomy professor and former employee of NASA’s Pan American Aerospace Service Division at the Kennedy Space Station, John Longworth, said that “there are many private companies that are interested in providing space equipment” and that through this competition, they will provide “a more economical means” to get into low-Earth orbit.
Along with support from the commercial sector, Longworth affirms that NASA also has programs planned with other nation’s space programs such as the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency who “will be escorting us back and forth to the space station for a while.”
To those who ask if this is the end of America’s dominance in space, Longworth said that “one of the major contributions to our knowledge from the work of the manned missions, [is] the observation and/or perception that from space there are no borders.”
How Are We Getting There?:
In order to make human exploration possible beyond low-Earth orbit, NASA is working on a number of new technological developments: a multi-purpose crew vehicle with the capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions, a new design for heavy-lift space launch systems, solar-electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems.
The International Space Station will still be the centerpiece for NASA spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit where Americans will continue to live and work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Today the station is fully staffed with a crew of six. Exploration technologies that are tested at the Station include autonomous refueling of spacecrafts, advanced life support systems and human/robotic interfaces.
In the realm of science, NASA will be conducting an unprecedented array of missions done robotically to seek new knowledge about the Earth, solar system and universe.
“Robots are much more efficient,” Longworth said. “You don’t have to keep them alive and they don’t have to return to earth.”
- On July 16, the Dawn spacecraft began a year-long visit to the large asteroid Vesta with the intention of uncovering new information on the solar system’s early history.
- In August, the Juno spacecraft will launch to investigate Jupiter’s origins, structure, and atmosphere.
- In September, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project will be launched as the first-step to building a next-generation Earth-monitoring satellite system.
- In October, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) will be launched to the moon to study its gravity field and interior structure.
- In November, the Mars Science Laboratory named Curiosity will be launched to mars to look for evidence of microbial life.
- In February 2012, NASA will launch the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array to search for black holes, map supernova explosions and study extremely active galaxies.
When asked what his students can look forward to next, Professor Longworth had this to say.
We are just getting started in our exploration of space. Each telescope, each robot will make a new discovery. In class, we view recent pictures sent back by the Messenger spacecraft around Mercury, look at information sent back by the Mars Rovers, one of which is currently still operating on the surface. Shuttle launches were fun, as are solar eclipses. However, if the moons orbital axis was not tilted with respect to the ecliptic, we would have solar eclipses every month. If that occurred, they wouldn’t be that special.
President Barack Obama maked the following statement on the day of launch.
Today’s launch may mark the final flight of the Space Shuttle, but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space … I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars. I know they are up to the challenge—and I plan to be around to see it.
Popular internet vlogger Hank Green comments on the final shuttle launch in his recent vlog.
Contact Sam Reveley.
I have a hard time expressing just how excited I am about these things or even understanding why I’m so excited about it. We’re just now starting to poke our nose out of this pond. This sphere that we live on, it created us, we were built for it. But [it’s] our instinct—we can’t deny this push for awesome draws us out.