CAPE CANAVERAL, July 9, 2011 — It is a typically hot and humid day however this day is different from all others. Today will be the last launch of the space shuttle program and with it, US-based manned space flight missions.
A symbol of American engineering and excellence, the space shuttle is regaled one of the most technologically advanced machines in history. Now, after an impressive 30 years in service, the shuttle fleet will be retired to museums across the country; Washington, DC, New York City, California and the Kennedy Space Center becoming homes to the fleet.
It is estimated that over a million people came out to watch this last, historic takeoff, making this launch one of the most attended since the Apollo era of late 60’s and early 70’s.
The other group watching the launch were the “Tweeps” or Twitter people that NASA invited. One hundred and fifty Tweeps joined together to participate in a shuttle launch Tweetup. Twitter, a social media-messaging platform, has played an integral role for NASA as it continues to involve the public in launches, upcoming mission information and NASA’s future plans. A Tweetup involves users of the platform to sharing their experiences in real time to the general public.
The “Tweeps”, could be seen, handheld mobile devices, enjoying unprecedented access to some of NASA’s most historic buildings including the towering Vehicle Assembly Building as well as viewing the rotating service structure (RSS) roll back from the shuttle. The RSS is a large structure attached to the launch pad that protects the shuttle from weather elements and “Tweeps” were able to travel to the launch pad to witness the event, one of the last major pad exercises to the shuttle prior to launch.
Isabel Lara and Travis Senor, both DC area residents are also members of the final shuttle launch Tweetup. “This is very exciting and moving to not only be here, but to be invited to witness the last shuttle launch,” said Lara. “We are definitely a witness to history and words cannot express my thanks and gratitude to NASA for allowing me to be a part of it,” added Senor.
Shuttle Atlantis (STS-135) will be the final shuttle visit to the newly completed International Space Station (ISS) for restocking. The crew of four is scheduled to return to earth July 20th, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The size of the crew is important to note as if there is a problem with the orbiter after launch where it is deemed unsafe to return, the four astronauts can successfully live aboard the ISS until a Russian Souyez spacecraft can rescue them.
Atlantis would likely be flipped into an upside down position and de-orbited into the pacific. Flipping a damaged shuttle before reentry would place the heat shield upwards, causing structural on reentering the atmosphere. With no rescue shuttle in place, this option is the likely candidate if a rescue mission were needed.
Although the program is ending, this launch is no different. The risks are high, as always, a thorough investigation of the heat shields will still continue once in orbit. This mission is in no means routine, but to the four aboard the final shuttle, it is their chance to reach for the stars one last time aboard an American craft.
Which many find to be a distressing prospect.
NASA has been under immense pressure from the space community to definitively layout a roadmap for the organizations next program. During Wednesday’s White House Twitter Town Hall, President Barack Obama stated that the goal for NASA should be to work closely with private organizations that can continue low earth orbit missions for which the shuttle services today.
He further added that he intends NASA to do the more dangerous work; missions to Mars and to an asteroid, but that first we need to develop new technologies that can get us there faster and with greater safety. Former Senator, Mercury and Shuttle Discovery Astronaut John Glenn recently spoke at an annual lecture series in DC and disagreed pointing to the cost the US will spend each year putting American astronauts into space aboard a Russian spacecraft.
This feeling has been common as more former astronauts express their frustrations over the lack of US presence in space once Shuttle Atlantis launches and the fleet retires. If you ask a shuttle technician their thoughts, you get a different story.
Speaking on a condition of anonymity, a former shuttle technician feels now is the right time. “Most of the shuttle components are no longer made. The vehicles themselves are old, and there isn’t a way to replace many of the worn items which makes them increasingly more dangerous each time they fly.”
When asked where they would like to see NASA head in the future, both Lara and Senor agree that NASA should create new science and educational opportunities and continue space exploration.
“I feel it is important for us to return to space quickly and set our sights on other celestial bodies.” said Senor.
Lara, an employee of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, is excited to have Discovery taking up permanent residence at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F.Udvar-Hazy Center next year.
“While the planning is ongoing, we hope to involve the public in the transformation process of saying goodbye to Shuttle Enterprise and to welcome Shuttle Discovery,” says Lara. “We want to make Discovery’s arrival as convenient and as possible with as much access that can safely be provided.”
No official timeline has been given by NASA as to when the shuttle fleet will depart Florida for good, but DC residents can likely expect Discovery sometime in the spring of 2012.
As for Atlantis, the launch which was expected to be delayed due to weather went off on schedule, and with it, the last American flight-ready space craft. We can all take a step back and reflect on American spaceflight over the past 50 years and be proud of what our nation has accomplished.
And of course, wonder what’s in store for the next 50 years?
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