Atlantis: Final Flight

End of  an Era 

Tomorrow marks the end of an era: the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and  the 135th and last mission of the NASA space shuttle program.

A lot of us grew up with the space shuttle program, yearning and dreaming to reach the stars. The space shuttle and the space science programs inspired many a student to pursue higher education in aeronautical and aerospace sciences. There was the HABET  (high altitude balloon experiments in technology)  program at Iowa State University in the Space Systems and Controls Lab or the CUBESAT program at CalPoly: an innovative program wholly run by students to design, construct, test, launch, and operate miniature satellites for space research. It was a time of great inspiration. I still remember all those years of getting the applications for the astronaut program that never made it to NASA.

The NASA space shuttle is the only winged, manned, reusable spacecraft to liftoff vertically, achieve orbit and land horizontally. Enterprise was the first shuttle that was used for flight tests. It was retired in 1985 and became the property of the Smithsonian Institute. The first operational flight was conducted with Columbia which was launched on April 12, 1981. There were five shuttles in total: Columbia, Atlantis, Challenger, Endeavor, and Discovery. Only three remain today. Discovery flew it’s last mission in March 2011 and is slated to be displayed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Endeavor flew it’s last mission in June 2011 and is slated to go to the California Science Center. Atlantis completes its mission tomorrow (July 2011) and will remain at the visitor center in Kennedy Space Center.

In the 30 years of NASA space shuttle history, there were only two major catastrophes: Challenger that blew up during launch due to a faulty “O” ring in its right solid rocket booster and Columbia that disintegrated in space during reentry due to a hole in the leading edge caused by a piece of insulating foam that peeled off during launch. (see: Lost in Space)

When Atlantis lands tomorrow morning, it is a poignant, sentimental moment: the end of the 30 years of the shuttle program. But it also marks the beginning of an era of private, commercial space flight. The NASA space shuttle program was never amenable to the common man. After years of yearning, trying, I never got a chance to watch a shuttle launch or apply for the astronaut program because of the stringent requirements.

Yet I have hope for the next generation of commercial space program. If you and I can get to space it is because of people like Burt Rutan, and  Richard Branson. I might not have seen a shuttle launch but I did see the launch of SpaceShipOne (see: Spaceship One Government Zero), I did get a chance to meet Burt Rutan (many times!) , see Richard Branson, and touch SpaceShipOne! (see I touched SpaceShipOne)

So tomorrow marks the beginning of a new era of space travel: one in which you and I can be a part of!

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