Ending a 34-year trek that began with the space shuttle Enterprise back in 1977, the shuttle Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center early Thursday morning after a 13-day mission to the International Space Station. This was the 135th and final flight of America's space shuttle fleet.
“After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle’s earned its place in history," radioed commander Christopher Ferguson whose words will undoubtedly end up in history books to come. "And it’s come to a final stop."
“Job well done, America,” replied mission control.
Looking back, NASA took baby steps before launching its new fleet during a sci-fi charged 1970s. At the time, Star Wars smashed into box offices and the original Star Trek crew was gearing up for their theatrical run. Man's last trip to the moon concluded just three years prior. The Enterprise (OV-101) itself, looking more like a sci-fi movie prop than an actual manned spacecraft, seemed to turn fiction into reality.
Paving the way for the rest of the fleet, the Enterprise tested the skies three times in 1977, beginning its short journey by riding atop a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) and concluding with a free flight and a successful landing on the Edwards Air Force Base runway. The Columbia followed up as the first shuttle to enter orbit, launching in 1981 at the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39.
In the early days, the shuttle represented the possibility that man would soon venture out past the moon, possibly the Mars within the century. Hollywood caught wind of the sudden buzz and used the shuttle in numerous movies including Moonraker (James Bond 11), Glen A. Larson's Buck Rogers (in the 25th Century) movie/TV remake, SpaceCamp and a few others. But as the years went by, the image of NASA's fleet changed from exploration to workhorse as the ships slowly helped piece together the International Space Station, conduct experiments and launch satellites into the metallic collective currently orbiting the planet.
Over the three decades, NASA only built five space shuttles capable of low-Earth orbit flight: the OV-102 Columbia, the OV-099 Challenger, the OV-103 Discovery, the OV-104 Atlantis, and the OV-105 Endeavour. Together, the 135 shuttle flights logged more than 537 million flight miles – 37 of those missions were specifically for the space station. The last mission, performed by Atlantis, delivered a year's worth of supplies to the orbiting station. Now ISS needs will be met by Russia and possibly other European and Japanese crafts – perhaps even ships from the commercial sector.
"This final shuttle flight marks the end of an era, but today, we recommit ourselves to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary — and difficult — steps to ensure America’s leadership in human spaceflight for years to come," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle ... but, one day, they may walk on Mars. The future belongs to us. And just like those who came before us, we have an obligation to set an ambitious course and take an inspired nation along for the journey."
The three remaining active shuttles – the Discovery, the Endeavour, and the Atlantis – will be decommissioned and put on display. The Discovery will be located as the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center museum outside Washington, the Endeavour will be at the California Science Center Los Angeles, and the Atlantis will be parked at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
But the fleet's 34-year trek hasn't been without its dark moments. The nation watched in utter horror as the Challenger disintegrated in mid-flight just two minutes after launch in January 1986 due to the failure of an O-ring on its right solid-fuel rocket booster (SRB). The nation faced another horrible shuttle tragedy in February 2003 as the Columbia disintegrated as it returned back through the Earth's atmosphere. Its destruction was due to a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeling off during the launch 16 days earlier and striking the shuttle's wing, creating a hole.
Despite its tragedies, the space shuttle fleet has been a huge success. It's become a part of the nation's history and a part of its culture much like apple pie, hotdogs, baseball and block-buster Hollywood movies. The fleet has been one of the heartbeats of America, and now its finally come to a rest after three decades. There's no question that the fleet and its promise of adventure into the cold void will be missed. From the Enterprise to the Atlantis, the shuttle fleet has created an unforgettable legacy.
"Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis will fly no more," Robert S. "Bob" Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics said in a statement. 'Some see this as an end, but it is not. Thirty years of shuttle missions, and of learning, growing, and improving, will not be forgotten: calluses and scar tissue; joy and tears; plots on strip charts and real-time visualizations; gauges and glass cockpits; prayers for safe flight and, yes, prayers of grieving; looking back and looking ahead. The legacy of the shuttle era will be with us as long as humans journey from Earth to space."
To everyone involved with the space shuttle program, well done. Well done indeed.
And thanks for the memories. We look forward to new ones.