This is a post by the Young Astronomers author Joseph Dudley.
On Saturday the space shuttle Atlantis touched-down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, marking an end not only to its operational life, but to the entire shuttle program. In its 19-year history, the shuttle fleet has flown 355 astronauts into space, and in total there have been 135 missions, of which Atlantis has flown 33. NASA says the cost of each shuttle launch is around $450 million, and the cost of the entire program has been estimated in the range of $170 billion.
Atlantis Fact File:
First flight: STS-51-J, 3 October 1985
Number of missions: 33
Time spent in space: 306 days
Distance travelled: 125 million miles
Satellites deployed: 14
ISS dockings: 12
Weight: 80 tons
Length: 37.2 meters
Height: 17.2 meters
Wingspan: 23.7 meters
Atlantis is the fourth of the operational orbiters, and was delivered to the Kennedy Space Centre in April 1985, for its maiden voyage on October 3rd that year. In 1989, Atlantis carried and deployed the interplanetary probes, Magellan and Galileo for their missions to Venus and Jupiter respectively, and in 1991 it carried the Gamma Ray Observatory, at the time the heaviest ever payload. Just a few days ago, Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time, but this was not the first space-station it had docked with. In 1995, Atlantis conducted the 100th manned US space flight and made the first ever shuttle docking at the Russian space-station Mir. After Mir was abandoned and de-orbited in 2001, Atlantis delivered both the Destiny Module, an orbital research station, and the Quest Joint Airlock to the ISS. In May 2009, it was Atlantis that flew the vital servicing mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, installing new cameras, batteries and a gyroscope during five 7 hour space walks.
Though the shuttle program is at an end, NASA is already looking to the future. However, NASA is facing a lot of pressure to keep operating costs low; President Obama recently proposed that NASA‘s budget be frozen until 2016, whilst others in the US government are suggesting that it be cut. Despite the threats of lower funding, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says that “The future of human spaceflight is bright,” and that he believes that more efficient and affordable transport to and from the International Space Station can be achieved by the private sector, allowing NASA to focus on longer term plans to visit the Moon, an asteroid or even Mars. In the meantime, it appears America will have to rely upon Russian rockets to launch its astronauts for the foreseeable future.
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