By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Exactly 42 years, seven hours and one minute from the moment astronaut Neil Armstrong’s left boot first made contact with the surface of the Moon, the wheels of the Space Shuttle Atlantis stopped, ending America’s longest running space program. After a journey of 5.5 million miles and 200 orbits of the Earth, Atlantis returned home to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) early Thursday morning, ushering in the post-shuttle era in space exploration.
STS-135 Atlantis, the 135th and final space shuttle mission, was an unqualified success. The four astronauts on board, Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, all veterans of previous shuttle flights, docked with the International Space Station (ISS) to transfer more than 8,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts, enough to stock the station for a year. The shuttle was the only space vehicle currently in existence that is capable of ferrying large cargo to the station.
On Tuesday, Atlantis undocked from the ISS beginning what could be described as an orbital ballet performance to slow down and begin the descent back to Earth. Fittingly, the International Space Station was as visible as a bright star to the crowd gathered at the KSC runway control tower on Thursday about 10 minutes before the landing. At just over three minutes remaining, twin sonic booms heralded the arrival of Atlantis. Then, in the pre-dawn darkness, Atlantis silently glided down the runway, coming to a stop at 5:57 a.m.
“Mission complete, Houston,” Ferguson said to Houston control. “After serving the world for 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history and has come to a final stop.”
Houston control confirmed the stop and thanked the Atlantis crew and the American people for a job well done.
“The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and view the universe,” Ferguson responded. “There is a lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring. Thank you, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship, Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and for bringing this program to such a fitting end. God bless all of you and God bless the United States of America.”
The shuttle commander thanked Mission Control in Houston and concluded by saying, “We’re going to sign off here. It’s going to be hard, but we’re going to walk off Atlantis.”
Shortly after landing, emotions ran high as NASA administrators and shuttle program employees gathered around Atlantis before it was towed to the orbital processing facility where thousands of NASA employees were gathered to welcome the crew and shuttle home for the final time.
“Out on the runway, I found myself just taking in the beauty of the vehicle,” said NASA Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach. “I took pictures of the vehicle and the workers; I asked for pictures to be taken of me with the vehicle. It was a family event out there today. It’s hard to describe the emotions. There were good emotions that we brought the crew home safely and sadness that it’s over. I saw grown men and grown women crying today — tears of joy, to be sure. Human emotions came out on the runway today, you couldn’t suppress it.”
For thousands of people working in the shuttle program, the landing meant an end to their jobs. In 2008, 15,000 people worked at KSC. That number is expected to decrease to 8,200 in the coming months; although NASA is predicting the number will rise again to 10,000 employees in the coming years to support new programs. The layoffs thus far have been almost exclusively NASA contractors rather than government employees.
“I can’t say enough good things about the team at KSC and how they’ve performed these last few flights,” Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said. “When you consider that folks know they are going to be out of work here (tomorrow will be their last day) they’ve performed flawlessly, right up to the very end. I have extreme pride in each and every one of them.”
Cabana later added, “You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect something to change. In today’s times, we can’t afford to keep flying the space shuttle and still work on those future programs.”
“I want to thank the space shuttle team for a tremendous effort, today and throughout the history of the program,” said NASA Associate Administrator of Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier. “I recognize that change is very hard, but huge growth, huge improvement will come from change. They should be very proud of what they have done; they’ve accomplished everything we asked them to do.”
Gerstenmaier then said, “I’d also like to thank the nation for allowing us 30 years for the shuttle program. This is a tremendous vehicle. As I stood out on the runway and stared at the vehicle, I thought about all of the systems and when they were designed back in the 70s, and it was a true marvel, looking at that machine out on the runway. It was a true marvel and it has allowed us to do amazing things.”
Although the space shuttle program ended the moment the wheels of Atlantis stopped on the runway, the legacy will live on, not only through the inspiration the program provided to millions of people around the world but also in its technological advancements, many of which are now part of everyday life. Research and development from the shuttle program have given the world everything from an improved form of LASIK eye surgery to a miniature, implantable heart pump that has extended or saved the lives of 450 people to date. The diversity of spinoffs from the program also ranges from home insulation that is many times more effective than fiberglass insulation to lens stabilization software that is incorporated into home video cameras. Today there exist hundreds of products in health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer electronics, computer technology, environmental conservation, and industrial productivity, thanks exclusively to the space shuttle program.
The shuttle program has launched 355 individuals representing 16 countries into space. The five space probes (orbiters) in the program flew 541 million miles and orbited the earth more than 21,000 times. Shuttles docked nine times with the former Russian space station Mir and thirty-seven times with the International Space Station. Fourteen astronauts gave up their lives in the tragedies on Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
Today Atlantis is lined up behind Discovery and Endeavour, ready to be converted from spacecraft to museum pieces. Discovery will reside at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and Endeavour will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Atlantis, still fresh from her final mission, will remain in Florida at Kennedy Space Center and is expected to be on display at the visitor complex in 2013.
Although the shuttle era is over, NASA is committed to further space exploration beyond Earth’s orbit with the Orion capsule, still in development. Although Orion is not expected to launch before 2016, Americans will return to space much sooner than that. NASA astronaut Dan Burbank is scheduled to lift off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket bound for the ISS on Sept. 22.