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The dawn of the final mission

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image STS-135 Atlantis on Launch Pad 39A

STS-135 Atlantis is the final manned U.S. space mission currently on the calendar.

By Mitch Traphagen

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — If the space shuttle Atlantis had an odometer, it would read 120 million miles. She has orbited the earth more than 4,600 times since her maiden voyage on October 3, 1985. Today, she stands proudly on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, ready and waiting for her final journey into space. The launch, currently scheduled for July 8, will not only mark her final flight, but it will also mark the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Upon Atlantis’ return to earth, the entire fleet will have been retired and, as of today, there are no further U.S. manned space missions on the calendar. The United States will, temporarily at least, no longer have the capabilities of sending people into space.

More than 131 million Americans have lived their entire lives with the space shuttle program. For those aged 30 and under, the Apollo program was history, the space shuttle was the news of the day and it became part of everyday life, much like compact disks, DVD players and personal computers. The shuttle was America’s link to space and the final frontier, beginning with the first test vehicle named, appropriately enough, Enterprise. Although planning for the program began in the 1960s, the first operational shuttle, Columbia, was launched successfully on April 12, 1981. Since then, the shuttle fleet has flown 134 missions, orbiting the earth nearly 21,000 times. July 8 will mark the 135th and final mission of the program.

In more than 30 years of slipping the bonds of earth for space, there have been two tragedies with loss of crew, a total of 14 lives. Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986; and Columbia disintegrated upon reentry only 16 minutes before its expected landing on February 1, 2003. Both stunned the nation and gave pause to NASA’s shuttle program until answers could be found and solutions implemented. In each case, the flights resumed, safer and better than before. In the end, the shuttle’s contribution to science and to the everyday life of all of humanity cannot be calculated. The value of all that was accomplished is so immense, so integral to the advancement of human knowledge, that generations may well pass before it is truly known and appreciated.

STS-135 (Space Transport System mission 135) Atlantis is the final manned U.S. space mission currently on the calendar. In accordance with a directive issued by then-President George W. Bush, the shuttle program will be retired in 2011, with the intention of ushering in a new era of manned deep space exploration under a program called Constellation. The space shuttle is not capable of traveling as far as the eyes and minds of NASA scientists. A manned mission to Mars, to an asteroid, or even a return to the Moon requires a different ship; but that ship won’t be available until 2014 at the earliest. Until then, American astronauts who visit the International Space Station will be required to hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket. The United States will no longer have the means for Americans to travel into space on its own. The Obama Administration has since recommended scaling back the Constellation program in favor of using private vendors.

Regardless, once Atlantis lands back on earth, marking the completion of STS-135, the United States will begin what scientists call “a gap in human spaceflight.” The nation will not have the capacity to send men and women into space until a replacement vehicle becomes reality.

Amid the excitement leading up to the final launch, NASA is hard at work promoting the next generation of manned space exploration, no doubt partially to reassure the public that the American quest to reach for the stars has not ended. The Orion spacecraft is being designed to allow astronauts to travel on extended deep-space missions and safely return to earth. This month, the space agency has taken that spacecraft on tour across the nation, to allow people to see it for themselves. Its final stop on that tour will be at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Titusville from June 29 to July 4.

STS-135 Crew Portrait: Attired in training versions of their shuttle launch and entry suits, these four astronauts take a break from training to pose for the STS-135 crew portrait. Pictured are Commander Chris Ferguson (center right), Pilot Doug Hurley (center left), Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus.With the impending launch of Atlantis, more than ever there is electricity in the air at Kennedy Space Center. It is palpable and can be felt by the thousands of people who travel to the Visitor Complex each day. Certainly, this is the time to visit the space center, which is only a two-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area. The complex operates without the benefit of American tax dollars and thus charges admission, beginning at $43, which includes a vast array of displays, artifacts, and films along with admission to the U.S. Astronauts Hall of Fame and space flight simulators. Bus tours of the complex, including the launch pads, are also available. Today, Atlantis stands at the ready on Launch Pad 39A — ready to reach for the stars as she has done 32 times since her maiden voyage more than a quarter century ago. Now is the time to visit the space center, while the dreams offered by the space shuttle remain via Atlantis pointing skyward for her final flight, and a glimpse of the future is at hand in the Orion spacecraft that will ferry the next generation of American astronauts into the final frontier.

In an era of severe budget deficits, with its fixation on the growing national debt and the looming specter of across-the-board government cuts in services, there are many who may argue that the United States can no longer afford to travel into space. The  350 American astronauts who have actually been there since Alan Shepard was first launched into orbit aboard Freedom 7 more than 50 years ago, along with millions of Americans who believe in what this nation can accomplish, know different. America can’t afford to not travel into space. This nation has always reached for the stars. This nation has the capability of touching them.

The final launch of the space shuttle program, STS-135 Atlantis is scheduled to take place at 11:26 a.m. on July 8. Tickets for viewing the launch from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and from the NASA Causeway are sold out. A clear view of the launch from approximately 12 miles away is available from Space View Park in Titusville as well as many other points along the coast for dozens of miles north and south of the space center. In clear weather conditions, the launch may also be visible from the Tampa Bay area. For more information, visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com

STS-135 Atlantis - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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