Assuming the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis isn’t scrubbed or rescheduled due to the weather or some technical or mechanical glitch, this morning we Americans will start to write the final chapter in the story of the space shuttle program.
With the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, we Americans will start to write the final chapter in the story of the space shuttle program.
The final mission of the Atlantis, STS-135, is the 135th and final flight in the space shuttle program (not counting the five test missions of the original shuttle Enterprise, which never flew in space).
A crew of four will orbit the earth for 12 days, bringing the new “Raffaello” logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the International Space Station.
With the last shuttle flight, the U.S. has major decisions to make about the future of our space program and manned space flight. It comes down to whether we want the names of Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim to go down in history like the names of Apollo XVII Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt.
Cernan, Evans and Schmitt flew the last Apollo mission to the moon nearly four decades ago, in December 1972. Since then, no one has gone back.
We’d originally planned a few more moon landings and already had paid for all the hardware for those missions, but the Nixon administration, facing a limp economy and a skyrocketing federal debt because of the introduction and expansion of social programs and the costs of the Vietnam War, decided that canceling the Apollo program and scaling back NASA’s plans for a permanent space station was an easy way to save a few billion dollars.
Instead, we got a small, temporary space station called Skylab, and the Apollo capsules whose lunar flights were cancelled went to Skylab –– except for the final Apollo mission in 1975, which was a fruitless and very expensive exercise in Cold War diplomacy, the Apollo-Soyuz “handclasp in space.”
The 1970s were a time of national doubt and disillusionment for the U.S. Many questioned why we were spending so much money exploring space when we had so many problems on earth that they for some reason believed massive federal spending could eliminate.
It’s not surprising, given those factors at play, that Apollo-Soyuz was our last manned space flight until the first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981.
I was too young to remember the Apollo XI moon landing, but the last three moon landings are among my earliest and most powerful childhood memories. Few things can capture the imagination of a 4-year-old boy better than the vision of rocket launches or rovers cresting a lunar hill. For me, it was six long years from Apollo-Soyuz to Columbia.
The idea that we could let six years go by without traveling into space seems as dreadfully wrong to me as if no one in the U.S. had driven a car or piloted a boat or flown a plane for six years.
I was overjoyed when the space shuttle program began … and heartbroken by the Challenger and Columbia disasters of 1986 and 2003. All in all, the shuttle program has had a pretty good run, and the human race should be proud of the ISS and the shuttle’s crucial role in helping to build, supply and man it.
In fact, the original idea of a space “shuttle” was to have a reusable spacecraft to ferry crew members and supplies to and from a permanent space station. Now that the shuttle finally has somewhere to go, it’s sad that we have to retire the shuttle fleet. Still, I think it’s the right decision to move to new, safer and less expensive launch vehicles.
Regrettably, we’re again in a period of national disillusionment and economic and fiscal crisis. It is my hope, however, that we will make the necessary, albeit painful and unsettling, drastic cuts in federal entitlement programs and military spending that will enable us to continue on the path of discovery in space.
Will the flight of the Atlantis be the last U.S. manned space mission for years to come — marking not only a definitive end of an era but also a scaling back of our nation’s space exploration?
Or will it be just the last shuttle launch, to be followed after a brief interlude by new crews flying new launch vehicles to the ISS and then back to the moon and beyond?
Community editor Jared Olar may be reached at email@example.com.