When the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at 5:57 a.m. EDT this morning at NASA's Kennedy Space Center it marked the end of an era. Over 30 years, NASA's Space Shuttle program has overseen a total of 135 shuttle missions for the five-shuttle fleet, beginning with the April 12, 1981 launch of Columbia carrying two astronauts into space on an operational test flight. In their lifetimes, the world's first reusable spacecraft have been used to launch and repair satellites, carry out cutting-edge research and facilitate the construction of the largest manmade structure in space, the International Space Station (ISS). As the curtain comes down on the space shuttle era we take a look back at the craft that have defined space travel for a generation.
Many potential shuttle designs were proposed, including a fully reusable design that would use a large winged manned booster to carry a smaller winged manned orbiter to a certain altitude and speed before separating and being piloted back to earth and landing horizontally, while the orbiter continued into low earth orbit.
Others argued that the construction of a space station would be better achieved by maintaining the Saturn V production line and using its large payload capacity to launch a space station in a few payloads rather than many smaller shuttle payloads. Shuttle supporters countered that given enough launches, a reusable system would have lower overall costs.
NASA eventually opted for a winged orbiter with three liquid fueled engines, a large expendable external tank which held liquid propellant for these engines, and two reusable solid rocket boosters. This design was less costly to build and less technically ambitious than earlier fully reusable designs. And although it may seem dated to a generation that has grown up on science fiction movies and TV shows, and compromises were made in order to satisfy both NASA and the Department of Defense, the space shuttle design was revolutionary for its time.
So after a series of test flights Enterprise was stripped of certain components that were to be reused in other shuttles and entered retirement. Like many retirees, Enterprise went on an international tour visiting various countries and U.S. states before being delivered to the Smithsonian Institute on November 18, 1985.
NASA considered pulling Enterprise out of retirement after the Challenger disaster in 1986 but ended up using spares constructed at the same time as Discovery and Atlantis to build Endeavour.
After being restored, Enterprise was moved to Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport, where it has been the centerpiece of the space collection. It is set to be replaced by Discovery and will be moved to a newly constructed hangar adjacent to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City.
Columbia flew another three test flights and the first operational flight before Challenger became the second shuttle to go into orbit on April 4, 1983. Discovery followed with its first mission on August 30, 1984, followed by Atlantis on November 26, 1985 and finally Endeavour on May 7, 1992.
Not including the final mission, the five shuttles traveled a combined total of 537,114,016 miles (864,401,219 km), orbited the Earth 20,952 times and spent a total of 1,320 days, 1 hour, 32 minutes and 44 seconds in space. The various shuttle docked with Mir a total of nine times and with the ISS a total of 37 times, including the final mission.
Here's a list of a select few:
With the space shuttle costing $196 billion over 40 years, many people try and quantify the return on investment. But so many of the benefits of the shuttle program and space exploration in general are indirect and less tangible than commercial products.
The Hubble Space Telescope, which shuttle astronauts not only launched, but repaired and upgraded numerous times, not only provided spectacular images of our universe, but helped refine estimates of its age - as well as cast doubt upon its future and led to the theory of dark energy. There are also numerous scientific advances made thanks to the hundreds of experiments carried by those aboard the shuttle and those it has carried to the ISS.
The space shuttle also helped usher in a new age of international collaboration in space with the U.S.'s former Cold War enemy and Space Race combatants Russia with the Shuttle-Mir program. Further diplomatic benefits also result from the representatives from 16 other countries that have been carried on space shuttle.
Both disasters led to the suspension of the space shuttle program and criticism of the attitude of NASA management towards safety issues. And although the program resumed after a hiatus, the Columbia disaster signaled the beginning of the end for the space shuttle fleet with President George W. Bush announcing the Vision for Space Exploration policy less than a year after the incident, which called for the completion of the ISS by 2010 and the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet by 2010 in favor of developing a new spacecraft.
With no replacement spacecraft ready to fill the void left by the retirement of the shuttle fleet, extending the space shuttle program for an additional five years was considered by the U.S. government until a replacement could be developed. However this was rejected leaving NASA to rely on hitching a ride to the ISS on Russian Soyuz rockets. Under an existing contract NASA will pay the Russian Federal Space Agency US$56 million per seat until 2014, after which the price will rise to $63 million per seat before a commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with NASA is ready to fly sometime around 2015.
The possible replacements for the shuttle have been reduced to four proposals that have been awarded a total of nearly $270 million as part of the second set of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. These are Blue Origin's biconic capsule that would be launched atop an Atlas V 402, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser spaceplane, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft. The third round of CCDev is planned for the end of 2011, with NASA to award grants in 2012.
While the touchdown of Atlantis this morning will no doubt be met with a mixture of pride and sadness by those involved, the space shuttle fleet was past its use-by date, its life having already been extended. So as the space shuttle era is brought to a close, it also marks the beginning of a new and likely even more exciting era where commercial space tourism promises to bring space travel within the reach of more and more people - a dream that the space shuttle has fostered in so many who have grown up watching it.
NASA video of Atlantis' final landing:
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