CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off its launch pad at 10:26 CDT today, on the final flight in the shuttle program.
This flight marks the end of a 30-year era in U.S. spaceflight history. It’s the 33rd flight of Atlantis, and the 135th shuttle flight.
About the mission
Cmdr. Christopher Ferguson and his crew of three veteran astronauts make up the smallest shuttle crew since the sixth flight in 1983. The shuttle usually carries a crew of seven, but on this last flight the middeck, where the other three astonauts would normally ride, is crammed with extra supplies and experiments bound for the International Space Station. Atlantis will deliver a year’s worth of supplies to the space station.
The shuttle fleet has spent the last fourteen years carrying the parts of the space station into orbit. Now, with the retirement of the shuttle, the job of keeping the space station supplied will be turned over to U.S. commercial carriers and the other international partners.
American astronauts will ride to the station aboard Russian crew capsules, until the United States develops one or more crew-carrying spacecraft of its own to replace the shuttle.
This last shuttle flight finds the space program in a state of uncertainty, with conflicting directions from the White House and Congress as to how to develop the next generation of U.S. manned spacecraft.
The Obama administration wants to provide some funding to commercial companies, including both established aerospace companies such as Boeing and newer companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, and let them take the lead in developing spacecraft that can be used by both NASA and private “spacelines” to send humans into space.
But many members of Congress are skeptical that the private sector is ready to take on a job of that complexity, and want NASA to take the lead in engineering a crew-carrying spacecraft.
The current compromise has NASA putting some money into both approaches. SpaceX will deliver the first commercially launched cargo to the space station later this year. SpaceX believes it can be ready to carry astronauts in an upgraded version of the same capsule by 2014.
The NASA-developed capsule, Orion, won’t be ready to fly before 2016 at the earliest. The gap in U.S. access to space may be just a few years, but it could be longer depending on how much funding the development programs receive.
“It will be difficult to shorten the gap without the funds we have requested” in this year’s NASA budget, NASA Deputy Aministrator Lori Garver said.
Nevertheless, “we believe we will be going further, faster with our next generation of spacecraft,” she said.
On the ground
Here in Florida, the mood of the shuttle workforce is proud but sober. Two years ago, 12,000 engineers, technicians and other support staff were employed at Kennedy Space Center to maintain the shuttle fleet.
In just a few months, as the program winds down, there will be only about 1,000.
Most of those workers are hoping to find new employment working on a shuttle replacement.
The first shuttle, Columbia, took off from the same launch pad on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
In the years since, shuttles have carried nearly 3.5 million pounds of cargo into orbit — more than half the tonnage lofted into space by all nations since Sputnik opened the Space Age in 1957.
The shuttles have carried 356 astronauts into space, many of them on several flights; launched the Hubble Space Telescope and many planetary probes; retrieved stranded satellites and brought them back to earth for relaunch; delivered classified Department of Defense satellites to orbit; visited the Russian Mir Space Station and built the International Space Station.
Each of the five shuttles had its share of historic flights. In the 1990s, Atlantis carried several astronauts to the Russian Mir space station for long-duration flights that set the stage for international cooperation in building the space station. One of those astronauts was Oklahoma native Shannon Lucid, whose flight set a record for time in orbit by a woman that held until 2007. Atlantis also flew the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.
Atlantis took off with some items that were flown on the very first shuttle flight. One of the segments of the solid rocket boosters that launched Columbia in 1981 was used again to launch Atlantis. These segments typically are reflown several times. The Atlantis crew also is carrying a U.S. flag that was flown on Columbia’s maiden flight. The flag will be left aboard the space station.
When Atlantis’ wheels roll to a stop on the Kennedy Space Center runway at the end of its 12-day mission, it won't have far to go to reach its final resting place. It will be placed on exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center.
When the people who made it fly come to visit, they may be thinking what Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach said two days before launch, “I’ve been one of the luckiest guys in the world.”
• Atlantis: Upon return, will be retired to the Kennedy Space Center
• Columbia: Destroyed on re-entry; Amarillo, Texas-native Col. Rick Husband and his entire crew lost
• Challenger: Destroyed on liftoff; entire crew, including civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe, lost
• Discovery: Retired to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum iin Washington, D.C.
• Endeavour: Retired to the California Science Center in Los Angeles
• Enterprise (only used within earth's atmosphere)