Here’s Why NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Came To An End, Tech Times

Here’s Why NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Came To An End

NASA retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011. While remaining an object of fascination and an engineering wonder, the Shuttle required significant maintenance after each flight and did not truly deliver the next major leap forward. The interest in spaceflight too suffered the brunt of tough economic conditions.

So why did the U.S. space agency give up the Space Shuttle despite no alternative launch vehicle?

Not On NASA’s Hands

In a response made on Quora, NASA instructor and flight controller Robert Frost said that NASA does not have sole powers to decide on such matters.

“NASA is an agency of the government. Its direction comes from the government,” Frost said, as reported by Forbes.

Former president George W. Bush initiated the Space Shuttle’s cancellation back in 2004 as part of his Vision for Space Exploration, where its main purpose in the coming years was to “help finish assembly of the International Space Station.” He announced that the Space Shuttle will retire from service in 2010, after three decades of duty.

In that same speech, Bush broached the idea of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle to bring the United States back to the moon and eventually take it to planet Mars. In terms of budget, he said the new endeavors will be fueled by an $11 billion reallocation within NASA’s five-year budget of $86 billion at that time.

Effectively saying no new funds will be provided, Bush added that funding decisions in the future will be “guided by the progress we make in achieving our goals.”

Here’s the situation back then, as outlined by Frost: the Space Shuttle program remained pricey to operate, with the 20-year-old Orbiters getting more expensive to maintain. It would aid in completing the new space lab but would not assist in the new Constellation project that would take astronauts out of low Earth orbit.

Human Resources, Change Of White House Administrations

It’s not just the money, Frost continued. He added that there was “a very limited pool of people” that can provide expertise in operating spaceflight and an even smaller one for manned missions since others had already devoted work to the Space Shuttle and ISS missions. Jumpstarting the Constellation program, he explained, meant transferring manpower, and ISS surely couldn’t give up its people.

It was a sad decision to end the Space Shuttle, but Frost deemed it logical. Building another spacecraft for new missions meant harnessing new technology and entering foreign territory, adding to the fact that Congress did not fund work that would complete the CEV according to schedule.

With the entry of a new U.S. president and Congress, priorities changed again. The Space Shuttle bought time, CEV became Orion and got delayed, and Constellation was called off. The decision: tapping into commercial spaceflight and letting commercial firms pitch in bringing astronauts to and from the ISS.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was brought to life to achieve “safe, reliable, and cost-effective access” to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit, awarding contracts to the likes of SpaceX and Boeing for space taxi services. Both companies, however, discovered that human spaceflight could be more complicated than thought, and they proved to be not ready at the expected time, Frost said.

Since the Space Shuttle program came to a close, NASA has had to rely on purchasing a spot inside the Russian space agency’s Soyuz spacecraft, which launches from Kazakhstan. This capsule has flown American astronauts to the space lab and back on several occasions, including Scott Kelly’s historic return to Earth last March after spending 340 days aboard the ISS.

Prospects For SLS

After bidding goodbye to the Space Shuttle era, the attention is now on next-generation rocketship inspired by the Saturn V era, Eureka Magazine reported.

NASA’s Space Launch System is poised to be the most powerful rocket ever launched, hopefully bringing humanity closer to a return to the moon and stepping into Mars, but how long will it take for this to come to fruition?

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date and will be ready no later than November 2018,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the human explorations and operations mission directorate at NASA.

For its maiden flight test, the SLS will be configured for a 70-ton lift capacity and carry the unmanned Orion crew module beyond low-Earth orbit, but in its most powerful configuration, the SLS will offer a lift capability of 130 tons and push missions farther into the solar system, including the moon, asteroids, and even the Red Planet.

How NASA, in a post-Space Shuttle era, will shoot for the moon and beyond in coming years remains to be seen.

NASA Launches Space Shuttle on Final Flight to Space Station – ABC News

NASA Launches Space Shuttle on Final Flight to Space Station

Atlantis in orbit; NASA braces for change.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA, July 8, 2011 — — Space shuttle Atlantis, delayed almost to the last second by a computer glitch, left the launch pad here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, punched a hole in the clouds, and disappeared into the history books.

After 135 flights in 30 years, it was the last space shuttle launch ever. And it was a spectacular sight to the estimated one million people who crowded around the space center to see it happen. The shuttle rose on a streak of flame, almost blinding to see, going higher and higher and higher. Within a minute it passed through a low layer of clouds above it and was gone, leaving a pillar of steam that slowly dissipated in Florida’s muggy air.

“We got to witness something really, really special and something amazing,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s space operations.

But it may be the last time America launches its own astronauts for many years. At the Kennedy Space Center, throngs of people applauded, cheered — and in some cases wept. This part of Florida has lived in large part for space shuttle launches, and there is not a clear plan for what comes next.

Atlantis’ launch — a dramatic spectacle in any event — became a nail-biter as well. Controllers had less than five minutes in which to get it off the pad while its target, the International Space Station, was orbiting overhead. Clouds, which had loomed over the area all morning, parted just in time, and the countdown clock went into its final moments. But with just 31 seconds to go before liftoff, it suddenly stopped.

The problem turned out to be small: a sensor had failed to confirm that an access arm on the shuttle’s gantry had safely retracted. Controllers solved the problem by going relatively low-tech: they looked at the arm through a television camera on the launch pad. But three tense minutes passed while engineers satisfied themselves there was no actual danger. If the wait had been longer, it would have forced an expensive two-day launch delay.

“I think we launched with 58 seconds left,” said Mike Leinbach, the launch director. “That’s an eternity as far as I’m concerned.”

Atlantis is now on its way to a final rendezvous with the space station, scheduled for midday Sunday. Its mission sounds fairly mundane: it is carrying a year’s worth of preserved food, clothing, spare parts and other supplies for the station’s six crew members. It is scheduled to land on July 20 at 7:06 a.m., ET, though NASA will give the astronauts an extra day if they can conserve enough fuel and power.

And then it will become a museum piece; a new building is planned for it at the visitors’ center here.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden released a bittersweet statement moments after Atlantis reached orbit:

“With today’s final launch of the space shuttle we turn the page on a remarkable period in America’s history in space, while beginning the next chapter in our nation’s extraordinary story of exploration,” Bolden said. “Tomorrow’s destinations will inspire new generations of explorers, and the shuttle pioneers have made the next chapter of human spaceflight possible.”

But the harsh reality is that years will probably pass before America sets off for those those future destinations. The Obama administration has proposed that NASA build a new, more powerful booster to take astronauts into deep space, perhaps to a passing asteroid and ultimately on the Mars.

The booster is several years from completion, though, and in the meantime, NASA says the number of space workers here in Florida, which peaked at 15,000 people, will shrink to 8,200. Private companies have been invited to take over the job of ferrying astronauts to the space station, but none has yet put astronauts in orbit.

Bob Cabana, a former astronaut who now heads the Kennedy Space Center, tried to be encouraging today.

“Change is difficult,” he said, “but you can’t do something else, you can’t do something better, without it.”

The Last Shuttle Flight, Space, Air – Space Magazine

The Last Shuttle Flight

On board Atlantis, the closing of an era.

Inside the space station’s U.S. lab module, the four Atlantis astronauts should have been starting to assemble, but they weren’t. Space shuttle commander Chris Ferguson kept eyeing his watch. “Everybody get in here! We’ve gotta be ready!” he yelled. It was the eighth day of the 135th and final space shuttle mission, and President Obama was scheduled for a televised call in just five minutes.

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The shuttle astronauts and the six members of the station crew should have been milling in front of the camera, tucking in their shirts and straightening their hair. Instead, they were all still rushing around trying to finish their tasks.

At the last minute, the final person slipped into place—by now they were pros at this floating press conference formation—and the call went through. The president opened with a joke, then told the astronauts how proud he was of them and the shuttle workforce, asked about a robotics experiment, and said: “I also understand that Atlantis brought a unique American flag up to the station?”

Ferguson gave a little start and his eyes widened. You can actually see it on the video. The flag! There were thousands of tiny American flags tucked into every crevice of the shuttle, souvenirs to be given out later, but the one the president referred to was special. The Atlantis crew had brought it up to the station to leave behind, so that some day, years from now, the next American spacecraft to dock there would be able to retrieve it. The symbolism was important to Ferguson, and he had planned to hold up the flag during the presidential phone call. But in all the commotion he forgot, and he had to settle for describing it instead.

Hardly a big deal, and only a few insiders would even have noticed. Besides, everything had gone pretty much perfectly on this flight so far. With only five days left—five days in the entire 30-year history of the shuttle program—he was finally starting to relax. He was lucky to be here. They all were.

When the last shuttle astronauts began training in the summer of 2010, there was no guarantee they’d get a chance to fly. The mission had originally been STS-335, a “launch on need” flight that would wait on the ground to rescue the crew of STS-134—the last scheduled flight—in case that vehicle was unable to return from the station. Since the 2003 Columbia accident, NASA had required this safeguard for every launch; there was little likelihood that a rescue flight would be needed.

Behind the scenes, though, agency planners had long considered turning STS-335 into a real mission. With the shuttle retiring, new commercial companies like SpaceX were supposed to take over the job of supplying the station, but their launch schedules had been slipping badly, and NASA faced the possibility of a critical break in the logistics chain. One more shuttle flight—loaded with five tons of supplies—would buy some insurance.

In September 2009, Ferguson, as the new deputy chief of the astronaut office, had been asked to look at what it would take to pull off the additional supply mission from the perspective of crew training and safety. There were several concerns. First, this crew would have no rescue shuttle—NASA didn’t have the money and had no more usable external tanks. In the unlikely case that their orbiter, Atlantis, was disabled, the crew would have to stay on the station until smaller Russian Soyuz capsules could bring them home, one by one. The last person wouldn’t get back for more than a year.

After much study and an outside safety review, shuttle managers were satisfied that four people could pull off a last supply mission. Their training would have to be compressed, and their timeline would be packed. But it was doable. And the four astronauts could begin training before a final decision was made, because a rescue mission to the station had a lot in common with a supply mission; one big difference was the number of astronauts riding the shuttle home.

Before he started working on the plan that would turn into STS-135, says Ferguson, “I thought the last flight had come and gone.” Now, by good fortune, another mission had materialized. His boss, chief astronaut Peggy Whitson, decided that Ferguson, a former Navy test pilot, was the logical person to command the crew of STS-335/STS-135. The pilot chosen was Doug Hurley, a Marine aviator who had returned from his first spaceflight in July 2009, and so had been through training recently. Like Ferguson, Hurley had expected to be on one of the last shuttles; both had been disappointed to be bypassed.

The two mission specialist slots went to a couple of veterans: Rex Walheim, a former Air Force flight test engineer and head of the astronaut office’s spacewalking branch, and aerospace engineer Sandy Magnus, who in the summer of 2010 was detailed to NASA headquarters, working on future mission studies and hoping for another tour on the space station, having lived there for four months—and loved it—in 2008 and 2009. Training for the contingency mission meant giving up her place in line for another station assignment. But she told Whitson, “Use me where you need to use me.”

Less than a year later, on the morning of July 8, 2011, the four STS-135 astronauts lay on their backs on the flight deck of Atlantis, awaiting the launch. For the first time in 28 years, there were no astronauts sitting downstairs in the mid-deck.

At T-31 seconds, a voice came over the intercom talking about a failure, and a hold. The clock hadn’t stopped this late in the countdown for years. Ferguson turned to Hurley, in the seat to his right. “Did she say failure?” They looked at each other, and Ferguson grabbed his checklist. The launch controllers on the loop were using their own jargon, slinging acronyms the astronauts didn’t immediately recognize. “Even though the world thinks [the astronauts] know exactly what’s going on at all times with this vehicle, we don’t,” says Hurley. “So it took us a few seconds to figure out, Oh, they’re talking about the beanie cap,” a hood that sits atop the shuttle’s fuel tank and retracts just before launch.

The problem was minor, and in a minute or so, the count resumed. Recalling the incident now, Ferguson notes how efficiently the launch team assessed the situation, made their decision, and moved on, with only minutes left in a tight launch window. “That’s what 30 years of launching the same vehicle does for you,” he says. “You really understand a lot of little chinks in the armor.”

Even among the astronaut crews, there was institutional memory that helped them handle problems quickly. Shortly after liftoff, during the thunderous climb to orbit, a loud klaxon alarm sounded inside Atlantis, a warning that the cabin was leaking air. This particular scenario had never come up in training, and the astronauts began to make the mental switch from routine to emergency. Ferguson, though, had seen this happen before, on his first launch. As Atlantis ascended, its metal structure expanded—they called it “cabin stretch”—and the air inside the pressure vessel expanded too. To the sensors, it seemed like the air was getting thinner—a sign of a leak. From personal experience, Ferguson could assure the others it was harmless, an assessment the ground quickly confirmed. Two weeks later, during the landing, it would be Rex Walheim’s turn to calm his crewmates, when they heard a loud bang on the mid-deck below them. “Oh, that happened on my first flight too,” he told them. It was the toilet door slamming open as the shuttle hit atmospheric turbulence.

Once in orbit, the astronauts stowed their heavy orange launch suits, configured computers, and prepared Atlantis for orbital operations. This had always been a hectic time for shuttle crews, and on past flights, if a couple of the astronauts got space-sick, it was hard for even seven people to keep up with scheduled tasks. That was another benefit of flying only veterans. “Knowing full well that we didn’t have anybody who was going to be throwing up for the first three hours after we got to orbit was huge,” says Hurley.

After two days of playing orbital catch-up with the station, day 3 was docking day. Ferguson had steered a shuttle to the station before—patiently firing little thruster bursts with his hand controller, while keeping watch out the orbiter’s overhead and aft windows. It was slow work, and stressful. Rendezvous was “one of the times that the pucker factor is a little bit higher,” he says, “because you have to be in just the right spot, doing just the right things, or it will cost you an enormous amount of fuel, and embarrassment, to get back to where you really belong. There’s a lot of pressure to put the orbiter in just the right spot.” As Atlantis approached, the view out the window was even more beautiful than he’d remembered. The station, he says, is “the ultimate visual stimulation….an incredible, silvery-gold, living thing.” Atlantis docked as the two vehicles orbited 220 miles over the Pacific.

Waiting at the other end of the docking tunnel to greet the arrivals were Americans Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, Satoshi Furukawa of Japan, and Russians Andrei Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyayev, and Sergei Volkov. All had been living on the station for more than a month, and all would help—to varying degrees—unload the tons of supplies Atlantis brought.

Most of the cargo was packed inside a room-size cylindrical module—named Raffaello—that rested in the cargo bay of Atlantis. It held a year’s worth of food, clothes, water, spare parts, and supplies for future station astronauts, all carefully number-coded and packed in pallets or boxy, white fabric bags. Hurley and Magnus lifted the module with the station’s robot arm and attached it to a station docking port. Magnus, the loadmaster, was in charge of the move, which would go on for days.

First, though, came a spacewalk on day 5 to remove a failed pump from the outside of the station and place it in Atlantis’ cargo bay to be brought home. There was also a refueling experiment to install, and other maintenance tasks. Normally a spacewalk during docked operations would fall to the shuttle mission specialists, Walheim and Magnus. But there hadn’t been time to fit a spacewalk in the training, so the NASA planners had come up with something new: The station astronauts—Garan and Fossum—would go outside, and Walheim would help direct them from inside the shuttle.

That had made for an unusual, hybrid style of training. In the months leading up to their mission, Walheim, Garan, and Fossum practiced together underwater, working out each foothold and turn of the wrench that would be needed in orbit. Then, the two station astronauts had to launch, so Walheim continued training after they left. Now, reunited in orbit, the three stayed up late the night before the spacewalk to go over the updated procedures.

When the spacewalkers stepped outside, Walheim, inside Atlantis, felt like he was right alongside them, following every move for six and a half hours. “I sat there with all my cameras set up and my procedures where they needed to be,” he says. “I was ready to go.” When he couldn’t see the spacewalkers out the windows, he watched on the monitors, looking vicariously through their helmet cameras.

With the spacewalk finished, the astronauts turned their full attention to the cargo transfer. For the next three days they unpacked the moving van, each person carrying a container to its designated spot on the station, then returning with something else—a bag of trash, a piece of equipment from an earlier expedition—to be packed in Raffaello for the trip home. It was like two lines of ants, one coming, one going, all day for three days. “We were a machine, man,” says Magnus. Fossum set up a couple of speakers and put on his favorite band—ZZ Top—so they’d have something to listen to as they floated past one another.

As loadmaster, Magnus held the checklist, and the others would come to her if they couldn’t figure out from the codes where something went. Having lived on the space station herself, she knew the system. “The station guys have to go find it later,” she says, “so the ground has to know that food container number 17 went to the JLP, rack number two, station C on that rack.”

She delegated to Hurley the job of unloading and loading Atlantis’ mid-deck. That included the monotonous task of filling bags of water (a byproduct of the shuttle’s fuel cells) to leave behind on the station. “Doug, bless his heart, got stuck on the mid-deck doing that—for days,” Magnus says. “He would start a [water] fill, then wander off into the station to bring something from the shuttle.”

Often, says Ferguson, on past shuttle flights, the commander had assumed a “passive oversight role, and generally didn’t work that hard. I probably was in that category on my first flight as commander.” But on STS-135, he had to pitch in too. At one point, he volunteered for unwrapping duty. For years, the astronauts had argued that the people who packed the cargo on the ground used way too much packing material. They even wrapped towels in foam. The leftover packaging created a major trash problem on the space station, but the packers had their reasons, and the astronaut office never could persuade them to stop.

So Ferguson spent a good part of the space shuttle’s historic final mission unwrapping a load of Russian-made urine receptacles, one by one, so the station crew wouldn’t have to. “They had bubble-wrapped them,” Magnus sighs. “Individually. Fergie spent an hour or two un-bubble-wrapping them, saying, ‘We are not leaving that bubble wrap behind.’ ”

For the busiest part of the move, NASA had arranged with the Russian Space Agency to get help from the three cosmonauts on the station. Normally, the Russian crew members would have stayed on their side of the station during the work day, running their own experiments and following a separate timeline. Now they joined the moving crew. “We had all three of them at one point, coming and going,” says Magnus.

As usual during a shuttle visit to the station, the two crews tried to have dinner together when the schedule allowed. One night it was in the station’s U.S. lab, another night they ate in the Russian module, and on day 7 they crowded into Atlantis’ mid-deck for an “All-American meal” of chicken, baked beans, and apple pie, in honor of the shuttle’s retirement.

“Sasha [Samokutyayev] just loved the space shuttle,” says Ferguson. “He and Andrei [Borisenko] were over there all the time. It was kind of this pilot-to-pilot thing—they just had so many questions: What does this do, what does that do? Everybody’s very proud about the airplane or spaceship they fly, and we really did enjoy showing it off.” The cosmonauts presented the astronauts with a patch commemorating the shuttle’s last visit to the station. “Knowing how difficult it was for them to bring things up in the Soyuz, I was really impressed,” says Ferguson.

As Atlantis’ time at the station wound down, and the crew started to relax about getting the cargo transferred on schedule, the ceremonial moments became more frequent, the mood a bit more reflective. The STS-135 astronauts understood all along that theirs would be a high-profile mission, with lots of time devoted to press interviews. These live public affairs “events” were done from the station, which was better set up for video than the shuttle mid-deck. To all the local drive-time radio personalities asking Ferguson about his favorite baseball team (the Phillies), or Magnus about her zero-G hairdo, or Hurley whether he would miss the shuttle, their answers were considered, even thoughtful, as if they hadn’t just heard another reporter ask the exact same questions five minutes earlier. They all thought it was important to share this last flight with the public.

An even stronger desire was to honor the NASA workers who had trained them, or had built the shuttles or serviced them—an entire culture that after 30 years was about to disappear. This had been powerfully apparent during training. More than once, after a busy day of simulations or meetings at one NASA center or another, people had stopped them to say how proud they were to have worked on the vehicles. Many were about to lose their jobs. “I talked to one guy who had been with Atlantis since it was built in Palmdale [California, in the early 1980s],” says Hurley. “There were a hundred stories like that. We talked to people who said ‘I started working here at Kennedy when I was 18, and worked on every flight’, people who had emotionally, mentally, and personally devoted their lives to the space shuttle program.”

Each night of the mission as they were signing off, Ferguson and his crewmates made an effort to thank the people in mission control—by name if possible. They recorded messages to be played later at retirement parties. One night a request came up to record something for the family of a long-time shuttle engineer who had just passed away. They found the time.

During the busy days on the station, there hadn’t been much chance for reflection, but now that the end was near, the shuttle crew felt it in different ways, and at different times. For Walheim, it happened while they were undocking. As the shuttle pulled away from the station, Ron Garan’s voice came over the radio: “Space shuttle Atlantis, departing for the last time.” At that point, says Walheim, “I was back from the window, toward the floor, kind of by myself, with nothing to do for a couple of seconds. It just kind of got me choked up.”

Now, with just the four of them back in the shuttle, there was one last major task to check off before coming home. NASA engineers wanted documentary pictures of the station taken from a vantage point never seen by other shuttles. So with Atlantis backed off to a safe distance, the station was commanded to turn 90 degrees. It rotated slowly; to the shuttle astronauts the motion was like watching the hour hand of a clock. Then Hurley flew a half lap around the station, up and over the solar arrays, so they could take pictures and video. The maneuver, said NASA flight directors, went “absolutely perfectly, by the numbers.” That’s what the press was told.

Inside Atlantis, “to be honest, it was a little chaotic,” says Walheim. Once the station turned from its normal orientation, the shuttle’s autopilot system lost its lock on reflectors attached to the station’s exterior, which were needed to get range data. Hurley, who was piloting, and Ferguson, who was assisting him, couldn’t tell exactly how far they were from the station. They were supposed to maintain a strict 600-foot distance to prevent the orbiter’s thruster plume from hitting the solar arrays. Walheim grabbed a handheld laser rangefinder, like a highway cop’s radar gun. He couldn’t hit the reflectors either. Each time he failed to get a lock, there was a “nasty buzzing tone. Everybody can hear it, and you’re thinking, Oh crap!”

Ferguson started to worry they might drift inside the 600-foot bubble. He laughs about it now. “I think my voice raised up an octave or two: Rex, I need a mark now! He was like Scotty from Star Trek: The dilithium crystals, Captain—I’m doing my best! And he was!” Finally, the rangefinder got a lock, and they managed the flyaround without penetrating the bubble. But they never did get video—they couldn’t get the camera set up properly.

The Night before landing, Ferguson was alone on the flight deck. He had just signed off with mission control for the evening, the last such sign-off in space shuttle history. It was July 20, which happened to be the anniversary of the first lunar landing, and Ferguson, knowing the world might be listening, had said to the ground controllers: “Forty-two years ago today, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I consider myself fortunate that I was [alive] to actually remember the event. I think there are probably a lot of folks in that room who didn’t have that privilege. And I can only hope that day will come for them, too, someday.”

Like many astronauts, Ferguson is frustrated that since 1969, space exploration has proceeded so slowly. During STS-135, he and his crewmates tried to explain, in practically every interview they did, that no, just because the shuttle was retiring, the space program wasn’t ending. But, he admits, “I don’t think the [political] waters have ever been muddier than they are now. And I think it’s going to take a couple of years for people to understand what we’re trying to do.”

What NASA is doing, in fact—in partnership with private companies—is building new spaceships, even though it’s uncertain where they’ll be sent. The crew of STS-135 is playing no small part in this new enterprise. Ferguson works for Boeing now, as the head of crew operations for the company’s commercial spacecraft program. Walheim is the astronaut office’s point person for the Orion capsule, which will be the first NASA vehicle to leave Earth orbit in more than 40 years. Hurley is the astronaut office liaison with other new commercial spaceship projects. Magnus left NASA in October to become executive director of an aerospace professional society.

But on the night of July 20, 2011, they were still a space shuttle crew, with just a few hours left in orbit. After Ferguson signed off with mission control, the other three joined him on the flight deck. Everything was packed away for reentry, and for the first time in 12 days, there was nothing left to do. For more than an hour, nearly a full orbit, they sat together with the lights off, talking quietly, basking in the moment, with Earth sparkling outside the windows. They saw thunderstorms flashing in the clouds below, the aurora shimmering as they passed over southern latitudes. “There’s so much your senses take in, the vividness of seeing the Earth, hearing the reaction jets fire,” says Hurley. “I remember feeling all was right with the world. You kind of want to bottle that up. Because if you felt like that every day, you’d be doing all right.”

The next morning, things happened fast. Shortly before 5 a.m. Florida time, Atlantis’ engines fired in the direction of its orbital motion to slow the vehicle and begin the descent to Earth. As often happens, the crew scrambled to get in their seats, and Walheim, the last to strap in, was still putting on his helmet as the fiery plasma light show started outside the windows. Sixty-eight minutes after initiating their de-orbit burn, they touched down in darkness at Cape Canaveral. A plaque now marks the spot on the runway where Atlantis’s wheels stopped.

While Ferguson, Hurley, and Walheim were busy shutting down the orbiter systems, they could hear the ground crews outside, starting to safe the vehicle, just as they’d done many times before. Magnus sat there in her lumpy orange suit, rolling her head from side to side, trying to get her neurovestibular system accustomed to gravity again. “I don’t think anyone heard me,” she recalls, “but I said something like, ‘Wow, it’s over.’ ”

Then they all stood up, piled into the Astrovan, and headed out to greet the crowd.

Tony Reichhardt is a senior editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian.

The Last Space Shuttle Launches Safely Into Orbit, WIRED

The Last Space Shuttle Launches Safely Into Orbit

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The Last Space Shuttle Launches Safely Into Orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The last mission in NASA’s decades-long space shuttle program is now underway.

Atlantis rocketed into orbit today at 11:29 a.m. EDT and is flying at 17,500 mph around the Earth. The mission, STS-135, will catch up with the International Space Station in two days.

The space shuttle launch marks the last in NASA’s history, closing out a government-funded space program that lasted 30 years.

“The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it commits to be bold and follow through,” said astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of the mission, from the cockpit of Atlantis just before pushing into space atop a billowing cloud of fumes. “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.”

During their 12-day mission, Ferguson and his three crewmembers – veteran astronauts Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim – plan to wrap up construction of the space station. They’ll deliver a new room crammed with a year’s worth of food, water and other supplies and perform a suite of experiments in orbit, including the test of a bag able to recycle urine and a space-based iPhone application. They expect to land July 20 at 7:06 a.m. EDT.

NASA’s space shuttle program has encountered both glowing support and heated opposition throughout its history.

The space shuttle’s designers intended to make human spaceflight routine, safe and relatively inexpensive by launching the reusable spaceship 64 times per year at a cost of roughly $54 million (inflation-adjusted) per launch. In reality, the program averaged fewer than five launches a year and $1.5 billion per launch.

“It’s a tough technical challenge to build a reusable spacecraft, and the president’s Office of Management . drew a line on how much money would be spent,” said Wayne Hale, a former NASA mission manager who now works as a director of human spaceflight for Special Aerospace Services.

Early on, Hale said, the program never got the roughly $5 billion it needed to build a robust launch system that could handle 64 launches a year, so it was forced to make costly compromises. “If we really wanted to have something that would have flown as frequently, we would have spent more,” he said.

But space-policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University thinks the shuttle was the wrong spacecraft altogether.

“Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely,” he wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday by MIT Technology Review.

The space agency ultimately launched 135 space shuttle missions since 1981 at a total cost of about $209 billion. Two of the missions – Challenger‘s last in 1986 and Columbia’s in 2003 – ended catastrophically and claimed the lives of 14 astronauts.

For all its setbacks, however, the program is on schedule to complete the most ambitious orbital laboratory ever conceived. It also delivered (and repaired) the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as an army of other artificial satellites.

The future of U.S. human spaceflight won’t end with the conclusion of Atlantis‘ mission. But the shape of things to come is uncertain.

No American spacecraft is ready to ferry astronauts to the space station during its anticipated 10-year lifespan. NASA is seeding money to commercial spaceflight companies to develop a human-ready spaceship, but the space agency expects a viable spacecraft to emerge no earlier than five years from now. Until then, the United States will purchase flights on board Russia’s Soyuz system for its astronaut corps.

NASA is dreaming up missions beyond low-Earth orbit, however, and awaiting Apollo-era-like clarity from the president.

“I think we as a species need to be thinking about living off this planet long-term, very long-term. We need to learn to live on another body” like the moon, said space shuttle launch director Michael Leinbach in a pre-launch press briefing. “But I’m not the policy-maker, I’m the implementer. I need to be told what to do.”

Lisa Grossman contributed to this report.

NASA: Last Space Shuttle Mission Will Launch July 8, Space

NASA: Last Space Shuttle Mission Will Launch July 8

This story was updated at 4:51 p.m. EDT.

It’s official: NASA’s last space shuttle launch in history is set to blast off from Florida on July 8.

Senior agency officials made the decision today (June 28) after an extensive review of the space shuttle Atlantis, which will fly the upcoming mission to the International Space Station, as well as the shuttle’s four-astronaut crew and ground teams.

Atlantis is slated to liftoff from its seaside Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8 at 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT). [Gallery: Shuttle Atlantis’ Last Launch Pad Trek]

NASA is retiring its three space shuttles this year to make way for a new space exploration program aimed at sending astronauts to asteroids and other deep space targets. The shuttles Discovery and Endeavour have already flown their final missions.

Atlantis’ 12-day mission will deliver vital spare parts to the space station to help keep the orbiting lab going after the shuttle era ends. It will be NASA’s 135th shuttle mission since the program began 30 years ago.

“We’re really looking forward to achieving this mission, putting the station where it needs to be and finishing strong with STS-135,” Mike Moses, chair of the shuttle’s mission management team, said in a news briefing this afternoon.

During today’s meeting, top NASA shuttle officials reviewed outstanding issues from the agency’s previous spaceflight — the shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 mission — to make sure they won’t impact Atlantis’ flight.

“We had a very thorough review,” said Bill Gersteinmaier, NASA’s space operations chief. “We spent quite a bit of time going over each activity going on on this flight. This flight is incredibly important to the space station. The cargo coming up on this flight is really mandatory. The teams did a tremendous job today of staying on point, getting ready for the mission, and getting ready for the launch.”

They also checked on repairs to a main engine fuel valve on Atlantis that leaked during a recent fueling test on June 15. The leaky valve was replaced and technicians at the launch pad completed a successful test on the new valve, NASA officials said.

Officials also checked modifications to Atlantis’ external fuel tank, reinforcements designed to prevent the type of cracks found on the shuttle Discovery’s tank before its own final launch earlier this year. Discovery’s liftoff was delayed months due to the cracks, but eventually launched flawlessly on Feb. 24.

The results of Atlantis’ fueling test earlier this month showed no cracks or other anomalies, agency officials said.

Atlantis’ final astronaut crew, which includes commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim, will arrive at Kennedy Space Center on July 4 at 2:45 p.m. EDT (1845 GMT).

With the shuttle program’s impending end in sight, NASA officials also highlighted their admiration for the ground teams’ hard work to round out the program on a high note.

“That professionalism and their dedication to the program over many, many years comes an internal commitment to do the job right,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach. “I know they’re going to do their job as perfectly as they have in the past. Yes, they know the end is coming. We’ve known this is coming for a long time, but nevertheless, the end of the program – something a lot of these folks have been with for 30 years – the mood is getting more and more somber. The end is just weeks away instead of years away. It’s getting more somber.”

The Last Space Shuttle Mission, National Air and Space Museum

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The Last Space Shuttle Mission

I was thrilled to be a part of the NASA Tweetup for STS-135 July 7 and 8 at Kennedy Space Center. It was exciting — and almost surreal — to be there for the end of the space program that my generation grew up with. We weren’t around for the Moon landings, but we all remember the first time the space shuttle “took off like a rocket and landed like a plane.”

July 8, 2011: Atlantis launches on the final space shuttle mission, STS-135.

NASA holds “tweetups” — gatherings of people who use the social networking site Twitter — as part of their outreach strategy to raise awareness for the agency’s programs. It is a great opportunity to meet 150 people who care deeply about the space program, are eager to help spread the word and especially want to share the excitement of space exploration.

On July 8 we got to the press site before sunrise and anxiously waited, along with hundreds of reporters from all over the world, to hear if Atlantis was “go for launch.” Most people were not optimistic. And then the sky cleared and we hardly had time to realize that this was it: the final launch was about to happen and we were there to see it. As if in a movie, there even was the additional excitement of countdown stopping a few seconds before launch.

I took many pictures and tweeted as much as I could, but no words or images can convey the launch experience: the blinding light, the noise so loud you feel it in your chest and the incredible pride that we were able to build a rocket that can take humans safely to space!

Artist Eric Sloane painted a mural in the Golden Age of Flight exhibition that is now hidden behind the main wall.

It was a bittersweet moment, the program is ending and we’re all waiting to hear what comes next. We are fortunate here at the Museum, because we will be a part of the orbiters’ next mission: to inspire future generations of space explorers. When Discovery comes to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center next year it isn’t really retiring; it’s changing careers, from space explorer to science educator.

I was incredibly lucky to have a front-row seat to this historic event. I was surprised by how people reacted to my tweets, the questions they asked and how happy they were to share the experience with me. The best reply came from my friend @VaneGill11: I felt as if I was reading a paragraph of history being written sentence by sentence.

Atlantis: Last Shuttle Launch, Space

Atlantis: Last Space Shuttle Launch

Atlantis was the fourth shuttle constructed and the last one to fly into space. It performed well in 25 years of service, flying 33 missions that included secret missions for the U.S. military, ferrying astronauts to and from space stations and launching several probes.

The shuttle gained a reputation of being the unsung workhorse of the shuttle fleet because it sent so many satellites into space. It also has the distinction of flying the final shuttle mission before the fleet was retired in 2011.

Atlantis was named after a ship that did work for Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute between 1930 and 1966. The sailing ship was the first to image the ocean floor using electronic sounding devices.

Atlantis at a glance

  • First flight: STS-51J (Oct. 3-7, 1985)
  • Last flight: STS-135 (July 8-21, 2011)
  • Number of missions: 33
  • Time in space: 306 days, 14 hours, 12 minutes, 43 seconds
  • Notable: Famous for the large number of satellites it launched. Its first flight was a secret military mission. It also flew the last flight of the shuttle program, STS-135.

Early missions

Construction work started on shuttle Atlantis on March 3, 1980, in Palmdale, Calif. Using what it had learned from its other shuttles, NASA built Atlantis in less time than its siblings. It was also lighter than the other shuttles.

NASA used thermal protection covers on the top of the shuttle rather than individual tiles, which saved substantial time and money during its construction. Atlantis ended up almost 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, weighing in at 151,315 pounds. It took about six months to get ready for its first mission, which lifted off Oct. 3, 1985.

To this day, Atlantis’ first flight is shrouded in secrecy. Mission STS-51J took five people into space and lasted four days. At the time, NASA did periodic flights for the Department of Defense, sending classified payloads into space.

Just over one month later, Atlantis headed for space again on Nov. 26, 1985, on mission STS-61B. It lofted three communications satellites into orbit. Additionally, Atlantis’ crew members did two experimental spacewalks devoted to learning about assembling structures in space.

The Challenger explosion in January 1986 grounded the remaining shuttle fleet for two years. It wasn’t until December 1988 that Atlantis flew again, this time bringing another classified payload into space on STS-27.

Sending probes toward the planets

Atlantis’ fourth flight, STS-30, marked a historic first for NASA. On board the shuttle was Magellan, a spacecraft that would be launched toward Venus. This was the first time that NASA launched an interplanetary probe from the shuttle’s payload bay.

The astronauts sent the satellite on its way remarkably quickly, only six hours after launch. Magellan fired its rocket stages successfully to coast to Venus. Its radar peered beneath Venus’ thick clouds and eventually mapped 98 percent of the hot planet’s surface.

STS-30 marked the beginning of a flurry of satellite and classified payload launches for the orbiter. Atlantis repeated its interplanetary feat on STS-34, when it sent the Galileo probe toward Jupiter.

It then flew two classified missions for the Department of Defense before sending yet another probe into space on STS-37, in 1991: the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Astronauts had to do an emergency spacewalk to fix a high-gain antenna that refused to deploy. Once that was fixed, the observatory successfully watched supernovas and neutron stars for nine years.

Atlantis went on to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite on its next mission, STS-43. Next, it lofted a defense satellite on STS-44, and a European tethered gravity experimental satellite on STS-46.

Seven straight to Mir

In the mid-1990s, Atlantis’ focus changed again. NASA and Russia had brokered an agreement for American astronauts to stay aboard the Mir space station, which would give both sides experience in working together in space ahead of the planned International Space Station.

Space shuttle Atlantis rolls out to Launch Pad 39A on Nov. 10, 2007 for its launch in December. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

NASA flew 11 missions to Mir, and Atlantis shouldered most of the work. The shuttle flew seven times in a row to the orbiting science platform, ferrying astronauts back and forth.

STS-71 lifted off on June 27, 1995, to usher in several historic moments. The flight was the first shuttle mission to head to the Mir space station. When some of the crew swapped places to head back home, Atlantis also became the first shuttle to see its astronaut manifest change in space. Also, the mission marked the 100th human spaceflight launch from Kennedy Space Center.

Atlantis and Mir, when hooked together, formed the largest spacecraft orbiting Earth, at the time. The space station and space shuttle together weighed about 225 tons, or almost half a million pounds. While on board, the joint U.S.-Russia crew brought equipment into the space station and did several biomedical experiments.

The shuttle flew again to the station in November 1995 on mission STS-74. Among the astronauts on board was Chris Hadfield, the first and only Canadian to make it to the Mir space station. On STS-79, Atlantis brought home Shannon Lucid after she spent 188 days in space, a record for an American astronaut.

Atlantis also returned American Jerry Linenger to Earth after he had a challenging stay aboard Mir, which included a fire aboard the station as well as the need to do ongoing repairs on the aging facility.

The fire, NASA later wrote, “altered the whole nature of his mission” and prompted a safety investigation by the agency.

Missions to Mir continued through 1998, but Atlantis was taken off the roster for about three years to do some upgrades.

The orbiter had two upgrades done before 2005, which included improving the plumbing and electricity for extended stays in space, putting in an airlock for the International Space Station, and upgrading Atlantis to a “glass cockpit” that included more advanced electronics.

From one station to another

Atlantis leapt into station work once again when it returned to flight on STS-101. NASA was now in a new phase of building the International Space Station. The orbiter blasted off for the station on May 19, 2000, and became the third mission to do work there. Astronauts transferred more than a ton of supplies and did spacewalks to work on two cranes outside of the station.

In the next three years, Atlantis crews hooked up cables between the Zarya and Zvedza modules, installed the U.S. laboratory Destiny and attached the Quest airlock, among other milestones.

In 2003, shuttle flights went on hiatus again after the Columbia shuttle broke up during re-entry. Atlantis flew again on STS-115, which had the most unique delay of the shuttle program. NASA took the shuttle to shelter at the Vehicle Assembly Building as Tropical Storm Ernesto approached, a process that took hours.

When an updated weather forecast came in showing that Cape Canaveral was in no danger, NASA brought the shuttle back to the pad while it was still on the road to the VAB. This was the only time a shuttle reversed course like this.

Final mission

In its last few missions to the station, Atlantis continued hauling heavy equipment such as the Columbus science laboratory and some truss segments. It flew the very last shuttle mission, STS-35, touching down safely on July 21, 2011. On that mission, Atlantis brought the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module into space, as well as a bunch of spare parts.

Appropriately for the workhorse of the shuttle fleet, Atlantis remains in the city where so many shuttle workers helped prepare her for flights into space. The shuttle is displayed at the Kennedy Space Center. In April 2017, a black thermal tile, which had not flown in space, was apparently stolen. A NASA volunteer noticed it had disappeared from a display cart after she gave a demonstration at the exhibit. [Infographic: Where to See America’s Greatest Spaceships]

July 8, 2011: That time Ars saw the last ever Space Shuttle launch, Ars Technica

July 8, 2011: That time Ars saw the last ever Space Shuttle launch

From the archives: Eight years ago, NASA launched Atlantis and ended an era.

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MERRITT ISLAND, Florida—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes space as “really big.” Kennedy Space Center (KSC) might be peanuts compared to space but, for human-sized visitors, it’s pretty big. Located on Florida’s Atlantic coast, an hour’s drive east of Orlando’s tourist spots, KSC has been NASA’s site of choice for sending people into space since the 1960s. Covering the northern half of Merritt Island, its 219 square miles are studded with launch complexes surrounded by semitropical nature. Last week, Ars braved KSC’s heat, rain, and crowds to watch Atlantis, and the 30-year Space Shuttle program, head into space for the final time.

Launching rockets over the ocean has quite a few advantages, but it’s also subject to the capricious weather patterns of the Atlantic. Getting something into a specific orbit is more complicated than just kicking the tires and lighting the fires; each day only has a discrete launch window of a few minutes. If it’s raining at the launch site, flight path, or at the various emergency landing sites in France and Spain during that time, no one’s going to space that day. This makes attending a launch somewhat fraught: the weather doesn’t care about anyone’s plans, plane tickets, hotel reservations, or work schedule.

Further Reading

Driving to KSC, things did not look promising. NASA scheduled the launch for Friday, July 8th at 11:26 am, with successive launch windows on Saturday and Sunday. By Wednesday afternoon, the 45th Weather Squadron was predicting a 70 percent chance of delay. To make matters worse, if Friday did have to be scrubbed, Sunday would probably be the next attempt, as NASA wanted to give its teams enough time to get home, rest, and get back again, a process that would be seriously complicated by the hundreds of thousands of expected visitors and the traffic jams they’d bring.

Rain battered the causeway as we drove to KSC on Thursday, but luckily my fears of aquaplaning to a watery death weren’t realized. The reality of the trip sunk in at our first sight of the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB. This giant box-like building, the largest single-story building in the world, is where NASA put together the components of successive Apollo and Shuttle launch vehicles. It’s also where launch vehicles begin their slow journey atop a crawler-transporter to Launch Complex 39A, followed by a fast journey into orbit.

At the media center

Badges acquired, we made it to the Media Center. In the shadow of the VAB, dozens of TV news vans were corralled together, satellite dishes pointing to the skies. News organizations from across the world were out in force. Some national broadcasters like CBS had their own buildings, weatherbeaten after three or more decades of exposure to the elements. Others were in trailers perched on cinderblocks, underneath tents and canopies. The rest of us were left jockeying for space in the Media Center and its annex. Beyond this teeming journovillage, a lawn reached out to the water’s edge, where the countdown clock and a flagpole framed the three-mile stretch of water that separated us from LC39A.

Flanking the lawn were a number of tents. Boeing was on hand with their new CST-100 crew capsule, a seven-seat design that’s being developed by the private sector. A mockup of the internal configuration was split in half. Nestled next to it was a prototype of the pressure shell, made from just two pieces of spun aluminum bolted together—according to Boeing, the lack of welds should make gaining manned flight certification a much quicker process.

Orion, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle under development for NASA by Lockheed-Martin, was in another tent. This was the actual test vehicle, festooned with data acquisition systems, fresh from undergoing a test drop out the back of a C-141 last year. Unlike Boeing’s design, Orion will do more than just travel to low earth orbit and back; a week to the Moon, or even many months to Mars and back, could be in the cards.

Sitting in between these two tents was the Tweetup tent. NASA has done a fantastic job of adopting social media as part of its outreach, and it has invited groups of lucky Twitterers to watch recent launches. Past treats at tweetups have included a look inside the VAB (something the public hasn’t been allowed to do since before the beginning of the Shuttle program), as well as photo ops at the launch pad. For this final launch, Bob Crippen, Commander of STS-1, was on hand to talk to attendees, as was Elmo from Sesame Street, who was the only celebrity I spotted other than Seth Green. The real celebs were the numerous former shuttle astronauts, easily recognizable in their blue jumpsuits.

Checking in with the weather desk reinforced the fatalistic feeling in the air. There had been a couple of lightning strikes in the vicinity, one hitting the water tower near the launch pad. However, once NASA’s safety concerns had been satisfied, we lined up by a row of buses for a photo opportunity with Atlantis on the pad. Everyone was excited, veterans and novices alike. That feeling even lasted after the skies opened up once again, soaking us to the bone as we stood in the rain waiting for the camo-clad security team and their sniffer dogs to give our bags the all-clear.

Visiting the launch pad

We had bumped into some familiar faces who were covering the launch for the Guardian. On the three-mile ride we swapped stories; how we fell in love with space, whether we thought we’d actually get to see a launch, where we were when Challenger took its final flight.

(Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo 1 have always affected me quite deeply. January 28th is my birthday, and for all three tragedies to have happened within a few days strikes me as a cruel cosmic birthday present. The tragedies of Challenger and Columbia seemed to perpetually hang around in the background. Maybe I’m a bit morbid, but they underlined the fact that traveling into space is anything but routine, despite the public perception.)

The crawler-transporter was visible through the fogged-up bus windows, parked a safe distance from LC39A. The buses pulled up a quarter of a mile from the pad, just before the Crawlerway sloped gently up to it. Trackmarks were embossed on the surface of the Crawlerway, two long ribbons of pink Alabama river rocks that stretched from the VAB to the pad. You could follow them to see, sitting there in all its glory, Atlantis!

I’d seen Enterprise several times, as it currently lives near my home, but there’s something quite different seeing something in its natural habitat rather than permanently parked in a museum. Even if you’d told me the launch would be postponed until after we had to return to DC, I’d have considered the trip a success.

The rain picked up again, putting the same question in everyone’s mind: “Will they launch?” Word filtered across the Twitter grapevine that the decision would be made in the middle of the night. Thursday night didn’t involve a lot of sleep. Waking at 2am, we saw that NASA had given the go-ahead to begin fueling the external tank, even though the forecast for launch was still only 30 percent.

As attractive as a full night’s sleep seemed, to sleep in and miss the launch while stuck in traffic would have been unforgivable. At 4am, my alarm went off again and we hit the road. Traffic was light until we got within a couple of miles from the causeway. We traveled this next stretch at about the same speed as a loaded crawler-transporter, but the brightening skies and lack of rain kept spirits high.

The jam evaporated at the causeway checkpoint, as only those with badges or passes were allowed onto KSC—the vast majority of spectators watched from the beaches of Titusville. “Carnival” probably isn’t the right way to describe the atmosphere at the Media Center. Unlike the crowds that packed the Visitor’s Center, causeway, and other sites, (almost) everyone was there to work as well as watch the launch. Yet the enthusiasm and affection for the program was palpable.

Space Shuttle Discovery – s Final Launch – The Atlantic

Space Shuttle Discovery’s Final Launch

In less than two hours, NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make its last trip into low Earth orbit. Discovery will be traveling to the International Space Station, carrying a large module packed with supplies and critical spare parts, as well as a robotic assistant named Robonaut 2. With the entire Space Shuttle program scheduled for mandatory retirement this year, Discovery is the most-flown spacecraft in history, traveling 143 million miles (230 million kilometers) over the course of its 39 missions since 1984, and spending nearly a full year in orbit. Gathered here are images of Discovery, its crew, and support staff from the past several months, while the spacecraft was being prepared for today’s launch. This mission, STS-133, is scheduled for liftoff at 4:50 p.m Eastern Time.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Discovery pauses in between Orbiter Processing Facility-3 and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) during a move called “rollover” on September 9th, 2010. Once inside the VAB, the shuttle will be joined to its solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank. Later, Discovery was scheduled to “rollout” to Launch Pad 39A for its launch to the International Space Station on the STS-133 mission. #

The underside of space shuttle Discovery is visible in this image photographed by an Expedition 23 crew member on the International Space Station soon after the shuttle and station began their post-undocking relative separation on April 17th, 2010. Undocking ended a stay of 10 days, 5 hours and 8 minutes.The recognizable feature on Earth below is the south end of Isla de Providencia, about 150 miles off the coast of Nicaragua near 13.3 degrees north latitude 81.4 degrees west longitude. #

Space Shuttle Discovery prepares to touch down at the shuttle landing facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 20, 2010. Discovery’s landing attempts at KSC were scrubbed yesterday due to unacceptable weather conditions. #

The space shuttle Discovery lands on Kennedy Space Center’s Runway 33 Tuesday, April 20, 2010, in #

Space Shuttle Discovery is towed from the shuttle landing facility to the orbiter processing facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 20, 2010. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shuttle Discovery begins to back out of Orbiter Processing Facility-3 during a move called “rollover” to the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). #

This panoramic image of space shuttle Discovery was photographed in Orbiter Processing Facility-3 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as the shuttle was being prepared for “rollover” to the Vehicle Assembly Building in September of 2010. #

In the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, STS-133 Mission Specialist Tim Kopra practices with a tool he will use while in space. The astronauts are at Kennedy for the Crew Equipment Interface Test, or CEIT, which provides the crew with hands-on training and observation of shuttle and flight hardware for their mission to the International Space Station. #

NASA astronauts Steve Bowen (foreground) and Alvin Drew, both STS-133 mission specialists, attired in training versions of their Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits, are submerged in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in January of 2010. Divers are in the water to assist Bowen and Drew in their rehearsal, which is intended to help prepare them for work on the exterior of the International Space Station. #

Attired in training versions of their shuttle launch and entry suits, NASA astronauts Steve Lindsey (left), STS-133 commander; Eric Boe (background), pilot; Tim Kopra (right foreground) and Alvin Drew, both mission specialists, participate in a simulation exercise in the motion-base shuttle mission simulator in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center on January 25th, 2010. #

In the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a suspect turbopump is removed from space shuttle main engine No. 1. The turbopump experienced an issue during torque testing and is being replaced for Discovery’s STS-133 mission to the International Space Station. When complete, all three main engines will be transported back to Orbiter Processing Facility-3 and reinstalled. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a space shuttle main engine secured on a Hyster forklift is installed in space shuttle Discovery in Orbiter Processing Facility-3. Three main engines, weighing 7,000 pounds each, will be installed for the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station. Engines are inspected and maintained in the nearby Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility before installation. #

While performing touch-and-go landings over the Shuttle Landing Facility runway, STS-133 Commander Steve Lindsey and Pilot Eric Boe enjoyed a perfect sunset over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Lindsey and Boe flew two Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA), which are Gulfstream II business jets modified to mimic the shuttle’s handling during the final phase of landing. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 crew members pose for a group photo on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway following their arrival aboard T-38 training jets. From left, are Mission Specialists Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt, Tim Kopra and Alvin Drew, Pilot Eric Boe, and Commander Steve Lindsey. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the external fuel tank for space shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission makes its way from the Launch Complex 39 turn basin to the 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building. #

A DragonEye proximity sensor developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is installed while space shuttle Discovery is in Orbiter Processing Facility-3 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. DragonEye is a Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor that will be tested on Discovery’s docking operation with the International Space Station. Discovery’s STS-133 mission, targeted to launch November 1, will be the second demonstration of the sensor, following shuttle Endeavour’s STS-127 mission in 2009. The DragonEye sensor will guide SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as it approaches and berths to the station on future cargo re-supply missions. #

In Orbiter Processing Facility-3 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, STS-133 Commander Steve Lindsey familiarizes himself with the layout of the shuttle’s cockpit. The astronauts were at Kennedy for the Crew Equipment Interface Test, or CEIT, which provides the crew with hands-on training and observation of shuttle and flight hardware for their mission to the International Space Station. #

During a simulated pad emergency on Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, STS-133 Mission Specialists Tim Kopra, left, and Alvin Drew hop in a slidewire basket that would take them to a safe bunker below the pad in an unlikely emergency situation. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-133 crew takes a break from a simulated launch countdown to ham it up on the 195-foot level of Launch Pad 39A. From left are, Pilot Eric Boe, Mission Specialist Michael Barratt, Commander Steve Lindsey, and Mission Specialists Tim Kopra, Nicole Stott, and Alvin Drew. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers in the Vehicle Assembly Building begin to secure a large yellow, metal sling to shuttle Discovery for its lift from the transfer aisle into High Bay 3. In the bay, the shuttle will be attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. The operation began Sept. 9 and wrapped up early Sept. 10. Later, Discovery will “roll out” to Launch Pad 39A in preparation for its launch to the International Space Station on the STS-133 mission. #

NASA astronauts Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott, both STS-133 mission specialists, participate in an exercise in the systems engineering simulator in the Avionics Systems Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The facility includes moving scenes of full-sized International Space Station components over a simulated Earth. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a large yellow, metal sling lifts shuttle Discovery from the transfer aisle into High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building. In the bay, the shuttle will be attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. #

In the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, this panoramic image captures the twin solid rocket boosters and the base of the external fuel tank in place on the mobile launcher platform, awaiting the arrival of space shuttle Discovery. #

Robonaut 2 waits inside the electromagnetic interference chamber at Johnson Space Center following tests that ensure the robot’s electronic systems won’t cause problems for other important systems at the International Space Station. R2 will be journeying to the space station onboard Discovery during the STS-133 mission. #

Robonaut 2 or R2 for short is now tweeting at twitter.com/AstroRobonaut. With the help of its team, the robot sent its first tweet on July 26, 2010. R2 will be traveling to the International Space Station aboard Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Discovery begins its nighttime trek, known as “rollout,” from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A. It will take the shuttle, attached to its external fuel tank, twin solid rocket boosters and mobile launcher platform, about six hours to complete the move atop a crawler-transporter. #

As the sun begins to rise at Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-133 crew members are in the pad’s White Room preparing to board space shuttle Discovery during the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT). #

Bathed in bright xenon lights, space shuttle Discovery makes its nighttime trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. #

On Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, preparations are under way to reattach the vent line to the ground umbilical carrier plate (GUCP) on space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank. A hydrogen gas leak at that location during tanking for Discovery’s STS-133 mission to the International Space Station caused the launch attempt to be scrubbed November 5. #

The beginning of a total lunar eclipse hovers over the top of space shuttle Discovery as the spacecraft waits to roll back from Launch Pad 39A to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. #

Preparations are under way in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to examine space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank. Shown here is the nose of the shuttle, which still is attached to the external tank and solid rocket boosters. Technicians will begin to remove thermal sensors that will give engineers data about the changes the tank went through during the loading and draining of super-cold propellants during a tanking test on December 17. Engineers also will examine 21-foot-long support beams, called stringers, on the outside of the tank’s intertank region. Also on the agenda, is to re-apply foam to the outside of the tank. #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Discovery makes the last leg of its journey to Launch Pad 39A. #

Space shuttle Discovery is attached to Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Later, the rotating service structure that protects the shuttle from the elements and provides access inside the vehicle will be moved into place. #

Photographers from around the world set up to take photos Wednesday night, February 23, 2011 as the Rotating Service Structure is rolled back from the space shuttle Discovery. #

NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building is seen shrouded in fog as Space Shuttle Discovery is prepared for launch at the Kennedy Space Center on February 23, 2011 in #

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Discovery is illuminated by bright xenon lights on Launch Pad 39A after the rotating service structure was moved away. #

STS-133 crew members, front row from left, pilot Eric Boe, commander Steve Lindsey, second row, mission specialist Alvin Drew, Steve Bowen, third row from left, Nicole Stott, and Michael Barratt, leave the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for a trip to the launch pad Thursday, February 24, 2011. The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to lift off this afternoon on an 11-day mission to the international space station. #

Crew members of the STS-133 space shuttle Discovery gather together on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida before boarding the orbiter for the final space flight in this still image taken from video February 24, 2011. #

Rising on twin columns of fire and creating rolling clouds of smoke and steam, space shuttle Discovery lifts off Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a picturesque, warm, late February afternoon. Launch of the STS-133 mission was at 4:53 p.m. EST on February 24. #

The space shuttle Discovery lifts off at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Thursday, February 24, 2011. Discovery, the world’s most traveled spaceship, thundered into orbit for the final time Thursday, heading toward the International Space Station with a crew of six on a journey that marks the beginning of the end of the shuttle era. #

Spectators watch as space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 24, 2011. Six astronauts are aboard on a mission to the International Space Station. #

Erik Halsteili, of Bellingham, Washington, points out the Space Shuttle Discovery launch to his brother, while dug into the sand on the beach in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Thursday, February 24, 2011. #

Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 24, 2011. Discovery carries a crew of six astronauts on a mission to the International Space Station. #

A long range tracking camera shows a close-up view of the space shuttle Discovery en route to space with it’s three main engines and two solid rocket boosters firing in this still image taken from video, February 24, 2011. #

Space shuttle Discovery (bottom) continues to orbit as the solid rocket boosters separate from the spacecraft after it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 24, 2011. Space shuttle Discovery launched into orbit on its final flight on Thursday for an 11-day mission to the International Space Station. #

A youngster waves as space shuttle Discovery lifts off at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 24, 2011. #

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The Shuttle Ends Its Final Voyage and an Era in Space

The last space shuttle flight rolled to a stop just before 6 a.m. on Thursday, closing an era in the nation’s space program.

“Mission complete, Houston,” said Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson of the Navy, commander of the shuttle Atlantis for the last flight. “After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.”

The landing, the 19th before daylight at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, concluded the 135th shuttle mission. For the Atlantis, the final tally of its 26-year career was 33 missions, accumulating just under 126 million miles during 307 days in space and circumnavigating the Earth 4,848 times.

Workers used spray paint to mark the position of the Atlantis’s wheels; a permanent marker will be placed on the runway to indicate the final resting spot of the space shuttle program.

The last day in space went smoothly. At 4:49 a.m., the Atlantis fired its maneuvering engines to slow down and begin its fall back into Earth’s atmosphere.

Descending in a northeast trajectory, it passed over the southeast Pacific Ocean and crossed Central America toward Florida.

On the International Space Station, Michael Fossum, a NASA astronaut, floated in the station’s windowed cupola and observed the trail of hot plasma that marked Atlantis’s re-entry.

Less than 10 minutes before landing, Captain Ferguson described the view from his window. “Beautiful view of the Yucatán, I think, going right under the wing right now,” he said. “It’s a gorgeous thing.”

“You’re looking good to us, Atlantis,” responded Barry E. Wilmore, an astronaut at mission control in Houston. But he added a correction: “You’re just passing the west coast of Florida.”

“Huh? O.K.,” Captain Ferguson said in surprise. “I’m further than I thought we were.”

In the clear, windless predawn, twin sonic booms announced the impending arrival as the Atlantis slowed to less than the speed of sound. It made a wide turn to line up with the runway, concluding the 5,284,862-mile trip.

During its 13-day mission, the Atlantis ferried 8,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station and brought back some pieces, including a failed pump from the space station’s cooling system, which engineers want to examine more closely. With the retirement of the shuttles, NASA will no longer be able to return large pieces of equipment back to Earth.

NASA will now begin the work of transforming the Atlantis into a museum piece. It will be mounted nearby at the space center’s visitor center.

Final Touchdown

At a news conference after the landing, Michael D. Leinbach, the shuttle launching director, talked about the mixed emotions of the workers and NASA officials who had gathered on the runway.

“I saw grown men and grown women crying today,” Mr. Leinbach said. “Tears of joy, to be sure, and that was just human emotions came out on the runway today. You couldn’t suppress them.”

There was pride among the shuttle workers, Mr. Leinbach said, that even as the program was shutting down, they had maintained their high standards.

“Over the past three or four years, we’ve been concentrating on completing the job we were given to do,” he said. “We’ve done that now, successfully. We have a lot of pride in that, and no one can take that away from us.”

But jobs will be taken away. Although no NASA government employees have been laid off, the jobs of NASA contractors working in the shuttle program were cut deeply as the program wound down. Three years ago, 15,000 people worked at the Kennedy Space Center. As of Thursday, employment had fallen to 11,500. It is expected to drop soon to 8,200 before edging up to 10,000 in a few years as new NASA programs begin.

Hardest hit is United Space Alliance, the company that handled the maintenance of the shuttles and prepared each one for flight. It will lay off 46 percent of its 5,200 workers in the coming weeks. Nearly all of the 1,643 workers losing their jobs in Florida will be out the door on Friday, a company spokesman said.

“Landing,” said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, “really was a heck of a last day for them.”