After the space shuttle, then what?
At 11:29 a.m. local time Friday, space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral for the final time, bringing nasa’s space shuttle program to an end.
The 135th and final launch was the result of last year’s decision to cancel the $108 billion nasa project Constellation, which aimed to send men to the moon by 2020 and to Mars by 2030.
The 12-day mission to restock the International Space Station marked the 33rd successful liftoff for Atlantis, proving once again that “it was possible to take a rocket into space, return it home and launch it again,” reportedbbc News.
Nearly a million spectators gathered around the space center on Friday to watch what might prove to be the last time America ever launches a shuttle into space.
“Cheers rang out at Kennedy Space Center as a crowd that featured former astronauts, family members of the current shuttle crew and thousands of employees … celebrated a bittersweet moment,” wrote the Washington Times.
With a sad note of finality, nasa crew members thanked each other and the space shuttle program for its successful run.
Minutes before liftoff, nasa test conductor Roberta Wyrick told the crew, “We salute the entire astronaut force, for your dedication not only to expanding our knowledge of the universe but for the improvements you have contributed to on Earth.”
Launch director Michael Leinbach said to the Atlantis crew, “Good luck to you and your crew on your final trip as American icons.”
“The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through,” responded Commander Christopher Ferguson from inside Atlantis. “We’re not ending the journey today … we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. Let’s light this fire one more time and witness this great nation at its best.”
Currently, Atlantis is set to arrive home the morning of July 20—exactly 42 years after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. Now, the program that was once the pinnacle of what mankind could achieve in space seems poised to simply fade into the background. The Washington Post wrote last week,
Among those most displeased with the state of nasa is former administrator Mike Griffin, who masterminded the Constellation program.
”What they did was abandon a plan for no plan,” Griffin said. “We are retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing.”
George Mueller, a former nasa official whom many consider the father of the shuttle program, said, “It’s the end of a career, not the beginning of a new one. What we lack is the beginning of a new one.”
During its coverage of the launch, bbc News reported, “[T]he shuttles have been costly to maintain, and nasa believes contracting out their transport to private companies will be more affordable. This policy should free up the agency’s resources to invest in technology which could eventually take humans beyond the space station to the moon, asteroids or even to Mars.”
In other words, America can’t afford it anymore.
For now, private sector shuttle flights remain years out of reach, and in the meantime, nasa has no way of getting its astronauts back into space other than paying for a ride in Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
Thus, in a series of continued falls from its number one spot in the world, America abdicates its leadership in yet another area in which it once ruled the world—space exploration.
The days of the astronaut “American icons” are over.