Part two of the end
Just a little over a month later, Endeavour was ready to take to the skies for the penultimate shuttle launch, with the important mission of delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to search for antimatter, dark matter, cosmic rays and other stuff that could explain the origins of the universe.
The launch was subsequently delayed by 10 days to 29 April, to make sure it didn't impede the docking of a Russian Progress supply vehicle with the ISS, then it got another 72 hours on the launchpad while engineers looked into the failure of a heater circuit, which turned into a big enough problem to require delaying until May 16.
Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS. Credit: NASA
Having sorted all that out, Endeavour got off the ground nicely in the end, carrying not just the AMS, but the possible beginnings of a race of Space Krakens in the form of a squadron of squid on which the effects of microgravity are unknown.
NASA haven't reported back on the state of the squid yet, but Endeavour mission specialists Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke completed two spacewalks, the second of which was the sixth-longest spacewalk ever at 8 hours and 7 minutes, before coming back to Earth on 1 June.
Endeavour spent nearly 300 days in space during her career and orbited our planet 4,671 times, NASA said in its online retrospective on the shuttle.
The final last ever shuttle
Finally it was the turn of the last space shuttle to make its final flight. Atlantis blasted off for the ISS on July 8.
The Atlantis crew spacewalked, rigged up the Robotic Refueling Mission experiment on the ISS and were treated to more celebrity wake-up calls.
But the crew also had to get on with some actual work, which included rousing one of Atlantis' general purpose computers when it clapped out, and paying the spacecraft an awkward tribute before returning home on 21 July to really, finally end the shuttle programme.
With the programme officially kaput, over 2,000 employees of the United Space Alliance (USA) were given their pink slips. The joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin ended up reducing its staff to around 3,100, from a 2003 high of 10,500.
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Shuttle meant more capabilities than just moving stuff around
Too many people really didn't understand what was lost with the Shuttle retirement. It wasn't only its payload capacity, which was far larger than many "COTS" devices available now, some payloads due to their size and weight can't be carried on most rockets available, and the Shuttle also allowed for more "delicate" payloads due to its "softer" take off.
The Shuttle allowed for a "space operation"s capability - see the Hubble maintenance - that now it is lost because no other platform can carry seven astronauts and a full assortment of reusable facilities (from the robotic arm to the needed tools). It could also bring back to Earth large payloads, and that capability is now fully lost.
NASA can put the Webb Telescope in a Lagrangian point, and let's hope everything goes well or it will be just a brick flying there, and it will anyway last far less than Hubble, as most of other satellites from now on.
If you look at the Shuttle just as commercial satellite launcher, well, it's too expensive and complex. It you look at it as a versatile space operation platform, it was very valuable. NASA should have started to design a new, less expensive platform (the thermal protection was designed in the seventies - there is really no way to design now a simpler one??) instead of trying to design an Apollo with LCD screen.
Meanwhile, moving from away LEO with actual engine technology is wishful thinking. The Saturn V was already capable of it. But it was too expensive also. Probably to move away from LEO you need to start from LEO. But first a full "space operations" capability form LEO is need. And it won't be achieved with Sojuz and Orion.
The NASA problem was keeping on selling the Shuttle as a commercial launcher, even when it was clear it was not, stopping development of cheaper launcher for commercial satellites.
It's useless to compare it to Proton, Taurus or SpaceX. It's like comparing a cargo ship to a aircraft carrier. If you have to ship eighty airplanes across an ocean you may just use a cargo. If you need full aircraft operations across it you need a nuclear carrier, even if it is much more expensive to operate.
Using a reausable, heavy, man-rated and expensive launcher to deliver commercial comm satellites was a nonsense that shows how NASA management was (and is) really incompetent. The Shuttle should have been uses as a prototype and scientific vessel to build space operations capability, as it did in its high-end missions.
Even if Orion can reach HEO or Lagrangian points, what could it do there besides saying "look mama, I'm here!" and then get back? Even if SLS is built, it will mean its very expensive payloads have no way to be returned to Earth and resused, and thereby will be abandoned in space or destroyed on return - how will it be "cheaper" than the reusable Shuttle facilities for high-end missions?
The whole MPCV has only one reason to exist, to keep on funding an aerospace industry full of engineers who spend too much time on Facebook and have only a tiny fraction of the skills their fathers and grandfathers had.