Atlantis blasts off on last shuttle mission
It's The Final Countdown, nah nah naah naaaaah....
Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from Kennedy Space Center at 15:30 GMT today on its STS-135 mission to the International Space Station.
On board for the shuttle programme's swansong flight are commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. They'll deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module packed with spares to the orbiting outpost, on what NASA's assistant administrator for space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, described last week as an "incredibly important" mission.
The STS-135 mission summary (2-page PDF/609KB) says of the other STS-135 objectives: "The mission also will fly the Robotic Refueling Mission, an experiment designed to demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space, even satellites not designed to be serviced. The crew also will return an ammonia pump that recently failed on the station."
Once Atlantis returns to terra firma, the US will be reliant on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS – at least until private initiatives such as SpaceX's Dragon capsule once again give the country a manned spaceflight capability.
In the meantime, NASA insists it is still a space heavyweight which is eyeing distant horizons beyond Earth orbit.
The agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, declared last week: "Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight; as a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I'm here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success – and failure is not an option.
"President Obama has given us a Mission with a capital 'M' – to focus again on the big picture of exploration and the crucial research and development that will be required for us to move beyond low Earth orbit. He's charged us with carrying out the inspiring missions only NASA can do that will take us farther than we've ever been." ®
To mark the final launch of Atlantis, the closeout crew took a moment after sealing the shuttle's hatch to send a few messages via NASA TV. No doubt it'll be tears and beers tonight down at Kennedy...
Dunno why, but since I saw - live on TV - Challenger destroyed in a cloud of smoke in '86, I've always been anxious on each mission for these folks' safe return. I'm not even a Yank.
Yeah, I saw Columbia on TV, too. By coincidence, I happened to be in Texas at the time.
Come back safely, folks...Park the bloody thing in the museum where it belongs on your return.
...and it is called Soyuz
...or something like it. Perhaps if we weren't pissing away a shit-ton(ne) of cash on half a dozen wars, and on bailing out Obama's buddies on Wall Street and in the banking "industry", we'd have the cash to fully fund the Constellation program.
Soyuz may not be as "sexy" as the Shuttle, but they've been flying it for nearly half a century, and made steady, deliberate, incremental improvements -- I like to call it the "VW Beetle Of Space" -- to the point where it's become a solid, dependable workhorse of a crew-transport vehicle (and cargo transport, in the Progress configuration).
What really kills me is that if we'd followed the same path with Apollo, we'd be set now. Apollo, when we last left it, was at a point where it could transport crew and cargo, if you were to replace the LM with, say a "mission module" (a la Soyuz) or a hab module for long-duration flights, or a cargo module.
I'm no expert, but I'd bet that if we'd continued incrementally improving and upgrading Apollo, we'd have our own Soyuz equivalent today, and there'd be none of this handwringing and desperate, thumb-sucking positive spin over the end of a thirty-year program which was predicted -- in the early '70s -- to become a flying white elephant.
So, my feelings are mixed, right now; it was gorgeous, graceful, sexy, majestic -- and, yeah, a huge-assed money pit.
I can only hope that NASA (Orion), SpaceX (Dragon) and Boeing (CST100) get on the goddamn' stick with their crew/cargo-transfer craft.
A cold one, for thirty years' service by all the hard-working guys and gals at Houston and KSC.
I feel about the same as you do.
The Shuttle was a technological marvel for its time, and can do things that no other spacecraft can do,... But it's hugely expensive to operate and maintain, has proven to be rather finicky, and turned out in some ways to be a lot more fragile than anticipated.
Even so, I'll be sad to see it go...
I still believe that the world needs a reusable space--plane like vehicle for ferrying cargo and people to and from LEO; the idea of throwing away a perfectly good booster stack -- engines and all -- every time you want to climb up the [gravity] well seems to be a wasteful way of doing things.
Elon Musk's Falcon 9 booster (launch) stage is intended (eventually) to be recoverable and re-usable:
-- Wikipedia: Falcon 9 (Section: Reusability)
-- -- -- -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9#Reusability
... and if SpaceX can deliver on the necessary engineering, then they'll have a Good Thing going, at least as far as wasted material is concerned.
However, I am not sure that recovering and re-using a liquid-fueled stage is practical, given the amount of refurbishment and testing required to ensure galvanic corrosion and salt-water contamination didn't compromise the components after splashdown...
(Grabbing my jacket; gotta take a walk around the Vehicle Assembly Building before they shut out the lights...)