8th Jul. 2011 :: Last Flight of the Space Shuttle
So, today is the launch date of the final shuttle mission, Atlantis which was completed in 1985 (how time flies!!), is due to launch at 11:26 a.m, you can watch on NASA TV
The Shuttle fleet has been NASA's workhorse for the last 25 years, but their success has been tempered by ideological and individual failures. We should of course remember with great sadness the loss of both Challenger and Columbia, and their crews - both of which were lost to a tragic combination of technical and oversight failure.
But the real failure was the failure to achieve the goal of cheap, reliable and regular space flight, and as usual the main culprit in this failure was a lack of funding. When you look at a shuttle today, you don't see what NASA had planned for or requested. The original plans called for an entirely reusable two stage space shuttle, the manned crew and payload shuttle, similar to what we see today, and a winged secondary fuel tank and booster rocket that was able to autonomously return to base after take off.
This combination was planned so that the secondary units could be quickly and easily maintained, essentially being ready for reuse by the time the crewed shuttle section returned from orbit days or weeks later. However this plan was scuppered by cost implications and NASA had to make drastic changes, this included: 1) A simpler but less cost effective external tank and solid rocket boosters and 2) Accepting payment from the US Military in exchange for changing the shuttle design to accommodate, and carry large spy satellites into orbit for the military. All in all, the shuttle became one big compromise as it just wasn't possible on the available budget.
NASA's entire yearly budget is the size of just 23 days funding to the US Military - and lets be clear about that figure - it is the basic annual US defence budget, not including the vast additional funding for wars.
Yet despite the issues, the shuttle program has provided humanity with some amazing achievements:
- Space flight, while not as regular as originally hoped for has become common place.
- The first reusable low earth orbit vehicle.
- Construction of the International Space Station, which is a real wonder, and our first genuinely useful constantly manned orbital station.
- Hubble - of course - and just about everything, associated with it, including the immense amount of science, and the amazing repair missions.
- And with a somewhat heavy heart, we should of course include the thousands of lessons learned about the issues, problems and dangers associated with space flight.
Lets hope that NASA's future direction is a tribute the to achievements of this amazing and fondly remembered program.
And good luck to Atlantis and her crew on her final mission.
Shuttle Launch :: NASA Image
Shuttle In Orbit :: NASA Image
UPDATE: Space shuttle Atlantis in historic final lift-off [BBC]
Launch director Mike Leinbach said to crew and staff before Atlantis blasted off: "The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We're not ending the journey today... we're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. Let's light this fire one more time and witness this great nation at its best."