Space Shuttle Atlantis has lifted-off from Cape Canaveral in Florida for the last ever shuttle mission.
Earlier today the final ever Space Shuttle mission (STS-135) successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The launch had been in doubt all week because of the weather conditions, and an unexpected pause in the countdown at T-31 seconds must have worried a few people. But Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted into the skies above Florida at 16:29 BST (11:29 EDT) this afternoon , taking 4 crew members and over 3.5 t tonnes of supplies, including a whole year’s food supplies, to the International Space Station (ISS). When the crew return to Earth in 12 days, Atlantis will be decommissioned and the Shuttle program will come to an end.
The Shuttle era began over 30 years ago, with the very first launch on the 18th April 1981. Since then 5 orbiters, Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Enterprise, have flown a total of 135 missions, spending the equivalent of about 4 years in space and covering a distance of almost 900 million km.
The Shuttle is the first re-usable space craft. Over its 30 year history it demanded huge advanced in technology, in addition to committment from a vast workforce. It has routinely carried people into orbit, as well as launching, recovering and repairing numerous satellites, and conducted cutting-edge scientific research. But after this final mission, the USA will no longer have the ability to send humans into space. If it wishes to do so, it will have to buy seats onboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, for about £40 million a time.
The shuttle was vital in the construction and operation of the ISS, the largest structure in space. But without the Shuttle, re-supply missions to the ISS must rely on the Soyuz spacecraft.
The Shuttle is also famed for launching and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, which has led to many important breakthroughs in astrophysics, as well as producing many amazing images of the universe.
Of course the program was not without it problems, and we must remember the brave men and women who died when Challenger exploded on take off in 1986 and Columbia was destroyed on re-entry in 2003.
After flying 33 missions Atlantis will join Discovery and Endeavour in a well-earned retirement. On its return from orbit, Atlantis will be on public display at the KSC visitors center in Florida. Discovery will be going on display at the Simthsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, and Endeavour at the California Science Center.
But the big question is what is next for NASA in terms of human space flight ? Will they replace the Shuttle with a more modern orbiter? Or will human space flight move into the domain of private investors?