Atlantis landing completes space shuttle era


Washington Post

by Marc Kaufman

July 21, 2011

The 135th and final flight of America’s space shuttle fleet landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center early Thursday – ending the three-decade lifetime of a technologically remarkable and versatile spacecraft, the likes of which the world is unlikely to see for a very long time.

The shuttle Atlantis and its four crew members touched down in Florida at 5:56 a.m., shortly before sunrise, after a 13-day mission to the International Space Station, the now-completed space laboratory that could never have been built without the huge cargo-carrying capacity of the shuttle.

“After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle’s earned its place in history. And it’s come to a final stop,” radioed commander Christopher Ferguson.

“Job well done, America,” replied mission control.

Ferguson and the rest of the crew — pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim — had been awakened hours earlier with Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.”

Ferguson said the shuttle “has changed the way we view the world, and it’s changed the way we view our universe.”

At a mid-morning news conference, shuttle program director Bill Leimbach said the landing was very emotional, with “grown men and women crying on the runway.” Leimbach said there were tears of joy for the safe return of Atlantis and completion of the shuttle mission, but also tears of sadness, since the program was over and many people would be losing their jobs.

William H. Gerstenmaier, the Associate Administrator for Space Operations, said that NASA was close to deciding on a plan under which the commercial rocket company SpaceX will begin to deliver cargo to the space station by the end of this year. Realistically, he said, the capability of private companies to fly astronauts to the space station won’t be in place until 2015 or 2016.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said shortly after touchdown that the program was responsible for a long number of “firsts.” But he also focused on the frontiers that have yet to be conquered.

“Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle … but, one day, they may walk on Mars,” Bolden said. “The future belongs to us. And just like those who came before us, we have an obligation to set an ambitious course and take an inspired nation along for the journey.”

Atlantis left the space station Tuesday after delivering a year’s worth of supplies. The one million-pound station, which took 12 years and 37 shuttle flights to build, is clearly the most enduring legacy of the shuttle program. Now formally designated as a national science laboratory and orbiting 250 miles above Earth, the station is just beginning to perform the science that was always planned for it.

Together, the 135 shuttle flights logged more than 537 million flight miles in low-Earth orbit.

One of the shuttle’s final missions was to deploy an eight-pound micro satellite, the last of 180 satellites and observatories large and small that took off from the shuttle. The spacecraft, first conceived in the late 1960s, was initially designed to be a launch pad for many more and larger vehicles, but that promise was never fulfilled.

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