End of an era: Last space shuttle comes home (Update 2)

Jul 21, 2011 By MARCIA DUNN , AP Aerospace Writer
The drag chute is deployed as the space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing STS-135, the final mission of the NASA shuttle program, on Thursday, July 21, 2011. (AP Photo/ Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool)

The space shuttle passed into history Thursday, the words "wheels stop" crackling over the cockpit radio for the very last time.

In an almost anticlimactic end to the 30-year-old program, Atlantis and its four astronauts glided to a ghostly landing in near-darkness after one last visit to the International Space Station, completing the 135th and final shuttle flight.

It was a moment of both triumph and melancholy.

"I saw grown men and grown women crying today - tears of joy to be sure," said launch director Mike Leinbach. "Human emotions came out on the runway today, and you couldn't suppress them."

Now the spaceship and the two other surviving shuttles will become museum pieces, like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules and the Wright brothers' flying machine before them. NASA astronauts, a dwindling breed, will have to hitch rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules for at least three to five years. And thousands more shuttle workers will lose their jobs, beginning with a round of layoffs on Friday.

The spaceship's return was witnessed at the Kennedy Space Center and Houston's Johnson Space Center by a relatively small crowd, mostly of NASA family and friends, compared with the 1 million who watched Atlantis lift off on July 8.

In Houston, flight director Tony Ceccacci, who presided over Atlantis' safe return, choked up while signing off from Mission Control for the final time.

"The work done in this room, in this building, will never again be duplicated," he told his team before the doors opened and the center filled with dozens of past and present flight controllers.

Shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew seized every opportunity to thank the thousands of workers who got them safely to and from orbit and guided them through the 13-day flight.

"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," he radioed after Atlantis touched down just before dawn.

"We copy your wheels stop," Mission Control replied. "Job well done, America."

NASA is getting out of the business of sending cargo and astronauts to the space station, outsourcing the job to private companies.

The first privately operated supply run is expected later this year. But it will be an unmanned flight. It could be several years before private companies fly astronauts to the space station, which is expected to carry on for at least another decade. In the meantime, NASA will rely on the Russians for rides.

The longer-term future for American space exploration is hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA. President Barack Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the mid-2030s. But the space agency has yet to even settle on a rocket design.

Thursday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who during their mission delivered a year's worth of food and other supplies to the space station and took out the trash.

They were greeted with cheers, whistles and shouts by 2,000 people who gathered near the landing strip - astronauts' families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and NASA brass. Ferguson and his crew were later swarmed on the runway by well-wishers.

As a thank-you to workers - especially those losing their jobs - NASA parked Atlantis outside its hangar for several hours so employees could gather round and say goodbye. Close to 1,000 stood in the midday heat, waving American flags and paper fans and photographing the shuttle.

Angie Buffaloe wept. Three colleagues in her engineering office will lose their jobs Friday.

"I spend more time with these guys than I do with my family," said Buffaloe, a 22-year space center worker. "We've been through everything: divorce, sick children, grandchildren. They've been there. We've shared life together ... and now their last day is today."

As of Thursday, the Kennedy Space Center work force numbered 11,500, down from a shuttle-era peak of 18,000 in 1992. Between 1,500 and 1,800 layoffs are coming Friday, and 2,000 more are expected in the coming weeks and months.

"I want them to stick their chests out proudly to say that they were a part of the most incredible era in American spaceflight, in anybody's spaceflight," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., a former shuttle commander, told reporters on the runway.

The shuttle was NASA's longest-running space exploration program, making its inaugural flight in 1981.

Shuttles launched the Hubble Space Telescope and fixed its blurry vision; built the space station, the world's largest orbiting structure; and opened the final frontier to women, minorities, schoolteachers, even a prince. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, became the oldest person ever in space, thanks to the shuttle. He was 77 at the time; he turned 90 this week.

Two of the five shuttles - Challenger and Columbia - were destroyed, one at launch, the other during the ride home. Fourteen lives were lost.

Altogether, the shuttle fleet flew 542 million miles, circled Earth 21,152 times, carried 355 people from 16 countries and spent a combined 1,333 days in space - nearly four years.

The decision to retire the shuttle and focus on venturing farther into space was made seven years ago under President George W. Bush.

An American flag that flew on the first shuttle flight and returned to orbit aboard Atlantis was left behind at the space station. The first company to get astronauts there from U.S. soil will claim the flag as a prize.

In the meantime, Atlantis will go on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex in 2013. Space shuttle Discovery is headed for a Smithsonian Institution hangar in Virginia. And Endeavour is bound for the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Said Ferguson: "I want that picture of a young 6-year-old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and saying, `Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up.'"

Explore further: France raises heat on decision for next Ariane rocket

More information: NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle

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Peteri
not rated yet Jul 21, 2011
What an embarrassingly sad state for NASA, and consequently the USA, to find itself in - having to now rely heavily on a former cold war enemy to ferry goods and astronauts to/from the ISS for the foreseeable future until NASA/USA sorts out the mess that it has got itself into.

How ironic is that!

The Russians must be laughing up their sleeves whilst they count all the cash the USA (via NASA) will have to pay for the Russian Soyuz taxi service!

Still, at least it shows how far international relationships have improved - hard to imagine such a thing happening 30 years ago!
Going
5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2011
"their payload bays stretch 60 feet long and 15 feet across, and hoisted megaton observatories like Hubble."

Hubble does not amount to a million tons. Its mass is 11,110 kg or just over 11 tonnes.

Hyperbole like this does not belong in a science article.
maheshJoshi
not rated yet Jul 21, 2011
time is almighty. former enemies are now helping each other for space exploration. nothing is permanent, today's enemies can be alies of tomorrow. the time will complete its circle and USA will gain its glory again. but today its somebody else's time.
omatumr
1 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2011
Yes, Reality Is What Is.

How did we get here?

What changed in 1972?

See events [0-4] below:

0. "February 21-28, 1972: The
Week That Changed The World"

www.pbs.org/wgbh/...xon.html

1. Nature 240, 99 (1972)

Data: www.omatumr.com/D...Data.htm

Paper: www.omatumr.com/a...ites.pdf

2. Proc. 3rd Lunar Planetary Science Conf. 2, 1927-1945 (1972)

Data: www.omatumr.com/D...ata1.htm

3. Time Magazine US (24 June 1974)

Report: www.time.com/time...,00.html

4. Newsweek (28 April 1975)

Report: www.denisdutton.c...orld.htm

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
NASA NGR 26-003-057
Arkaleus
5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2011
The space shuttle was important and amazing, but it represented a strategy of space exploration developed in the 1950's and 60's. Machines really are better suited for this type of work. The costs are lower, the risks are acceptable, and the technology of robotics and computers has advanced to the point where human hands are not needed.

I'm sad to see the end of the space shuttle, but it reveals how poorly our federal government has prepared for the next generation of space travel.

Nothing could be worse than abandoning our space programs; to do so would confirm our decline as a culture and put our people at a disadvantage for the contests of the future. We should be looking up, not losing our motivation and staring at the ground in defeat and dissolution.
Waterdog
5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2011
This is a sad day. The shuttle had its problems, but it was also an incredible machine with capabilities that probably won't be seen again in our lifetimes. The capsules that are being proposed to replace it are tin cans with life support by comparison. We should be building the next more advance version of the shuttle.

Salute, NASA, for a job well done!
BenjaminButton
5 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2011
Well done to NASA! As an Irishman I must say that despite the problems they have had I am still enchanted, amazed and encouraged by NASA and the USA in the context of human Space venturing! I think as a country you have so much to be proud of, and laying aside ceratin other things, the US made the effort and did it, for 30 years when no other country had the ability or the audacity. Russia's efforts and achievements pale in comparison to those of NASA/USA. So there should be all the same quite alot of optimism as I see it...no other country has private enterprise so excited to be the next leader...and the US is the only place that has built that culture of endeavour and support framework. China is sure to make leaps and bounds but come on...reall?? The States is still the undisputed leader and can maintain that position by making smart moves like the retirement of the Shuttle program and the pursuit of diversified investments.