US space shuttle returns to Earth for the last time

Atlantis will reach Kennedy Space Station tomorrow morning. Thirty years after the ambitious space shuttle programme began, is the project a triumph or an embarrassment?

Tomorrow marks the end of an era for global space flight, as a NASA space shuttle re-enters Earth's atmosphere for the final time. The Atlantis is due to touch down on the runway at the Kennedy Space Centre at 05:57 local time.

The shuttle left its dock at the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday morning, and is currently orbiting the Earth. On saying their goodbyes the astronauts aboard Atlantis gave two gifts to the ISS crew: a model of the shuttle, to remind them of the role it played in building the space station, and an American flag flown on the first shuttle flight in 1981. This flag will be handed to the next American astronauts to reach the ISS. If the orbiter makes a safe return, it will be put on public display for visitors to the Kennedy Centre.

For 30 years, the six different reusable craft that in turn made up the space shuttle program played a valuable role in colonising space. Carrying supplies to and from space stations, attaching sections to the ISS, repairing satellites and the Hubble Telescope, the ships took space flight from being glamorous and exciting to frequent and reliable.

But the 135 flights were not trouble free. Equipment failures in the Challenger shuttle in 1986 and the Columbia shuttle in 2003 resulted in a total of fourteen deaths.

The extreme danger, coupled with the massive cost of the project led to this month's 12-day flight being the programme's last.

The US's human presence in space has an uncertain future. With no other reusable shuttles, trips to the ISS must now be done using Russian Soyuz rockets. Commercial providers such as Virgin are building the next generation of space craft. These may eventually be contracted by NASA to do US space programme work, but none are expected to even be ready to enter space before 2014.

Science fiction or vanity?

The dream of the space shuttle programme was to make space travel routine and accessible, a necessary stepping stone to the stuff of science fiction: mass human space flight, floating villages, a life on Mars. With Atlantis grounded, this dream is dying.

But is this desire to plant a flag on space an outdated model of exploration? Victorian explorers took great joy in claiming a new land for their country, but perhaps the more important discoveries are not made by setting foot on fresh ground, but in achieving new levels in human understanding. Our resources might be better used answering what is human consciousness, and what is going on deep inside the Earth.

You Decide

  1. President Obama cancelled the mission to get another man on the moon. Would you have done the same?
  2. Where are the most exciting frontiers of human discovery at the moment? In space? In the oceans? Or somewhere else entirely?

Activities

  1. In 1960 American President John F Kennedy set a goal of having a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and in 1969 this prediction came true. Create a timeline, starting in 2011, with your goals and predictions for the future of space exploration.
  2. You are writing the US Federal budget for 2012. Research the costs and value of NASA to the US, and write a memo setting out how much funding you are giving it and why.

Some People Say...

“NASA's budget of billions should go on hospitals not space flight.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So who are these private companies who are going to go into space?
The most famous is Virgin Galactic whose 'Spaceship Two' can carry six passengers for £120,000 each to 100km above the earth. The passengers will be weightless for five minutes before beginning the return journey.
Anyone else?
Yes, many. Another market leader is XCOR, which has a small, two seat, rocket powered plane. All of its employees have already flown in it.
So are they going to reach Mars?
No. None of the models currently being worked on have the capacity to get any further than orbiting the Earth.
Doesn't that mean less will be discovered?
That is the worry. Because these are private companies, they will aim to do whatever is most profitable, not what is most beneficial for science.

Word Watch

NASA
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is the national space agency for the US.
Atlantis
A legendary beautiful island that sunk into the sea. All the shuttles are named after ships that undertook famous exploratory journeys. The Atlantis shuttle is named after the RV Atlantis. The oldest serving research boat in the world, it has sailed over 2 million km.
Kennedy Space Centre
The John F Kennedy Space Centre in Florida manages America's astronaut launch facilities. It has been the take-off point of every US human space flight since 1968.
International Space Station
The world's largest space station, constructed in space, it has had humans living on it continuously for the last 11 years. It is used as a laboratory, where experiments are performed that require the unusual conditions on the station, for example zero gravity. It is particularly used to test the effect of living in space on the human body.
Hubble Telescope
A large telescope in orbit around Earth, which takes amazingly clear pictures of deep space.
Soyuz rockets
Old Russian space technology, these rockets are cheap and reliable, but not reusable.

Subjects

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