As of this moment, NASA is in preparation and on schedule for the 8 July launch of STS-135 Orbiter Atlantis OV-104 which will be the FINAL launch of the Space Shuttle Program. Final. Last. No more. It’s the “If-you-miss-it-you’re-screwed” kinda last. After 30 years, NASA is ending the reusable space vehicle platform, referred to by ‘experts’ (people who actually launched or flew on it) as the ‘best spacecraft ever built”. Hopefully, the 4 astronauts of STS-135 will make this a truly “decisive” mission.
30 years. Thirty. The average lifespan of a female living in Swaziland is about 32 years. The average marriage in the US lasts about 11 years. So if you’re a chick born in Swaziland when STS-1 launched in 1981, you might have a few good years left. If you got married in the US that same year, chances are good that you’re either divorced or will be soon.
Since its inception in the late 70s, the Space Shuttle program has taken 355 souls into low-Earth orbit and traveled about 535 million miles . The Space Transportation System (hence, ‘STS’) changed the face of space travel from the tiny 3-man Apollo craft to a large jet-sized vehicle that could not only take up to 7 crew plus a huge payload into space but could do it over and over and over. Since her first launch in 1981, the Shuttle program has accomplished more than could have been imagined. Just before the October 1968 launch of Apollo 7, the astronauts joked that 20 years from that date we’d be playing golf on the moon. While that was never truly accomplished (NASA legend Alan Shepard did hit a few golf balls on the moon during his Apollo 14 mission…rumor has it was a 6-iron), I can’t imagine the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions could have envisioned the “condo” in space that is now the International Space Station. Just look what we can do.
Five orbiters have taken their place in the Shuttle fleet: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour.So what makes this launch special? Why is Atlantis different? Glad you asked.
The recently retired OV-105 Endeavour is a clone of Atlantis. Endeavour rose from the ashes of the Challenger disaster in 1986 to take her place in the Orbiter fleet; Atlantis was her genetic blueprint. Being the last to fly in space, Atlantis is now a close second behind Discovery in most missions flown. (Discovery has 39; STS-135 will be Atlantis’ 33rd.) No other shuttle orbiter has docked more with the Soviet station Mir. She was the last shuttle to visit the always-popular Hubble telescope. And she’s a movie star; she carried IMAX movie cameras to low-Earth orbit and back. The resulting footage was the focus of the IMAX 3D movie “Hubble 3D” narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Kinda mainstream for a shuttle, but still pretty damn cool. Atlantis has had a nice life.
How about some more ‘romantic’ details? Atlantis got her name from the main vessel operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (you know…those people who found Titanic. No big deal.) Her construction started in March of 1980 and finished in November of 1981. She rolled outta the Palmdale, CA facility in March of 1985 and was delivered to Kennedy Space Center the following month. Her maiden launch was in October of 1985 for STS-51J. She deployed the first-ever interplanetary probe on STS-30 then went on to launch probes to Venus and Jupiter. In 2008 she delivered the largest ever Space Station component designed by the European Space Agency (ESA). Ironically, she’s the only orbiter that can’t be plugged in…she has no shore line to connect to the Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer system. More notably, Atlantis currently holds the fleet “record” for fewest interim Problem Reports. A testament to the efficiency and dedication of the Orbiter Atlantis team.
Atlantis is no slacker. She has certainly made her contribution to the Shuttle program. After her illustrious career contributing about 25% of the total missions flown by the Space Transportation System, what’s next for Atlantis? Her reward is having the least distance to travel to reach her retirement home. She will eventually be on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Enterprise will move to the Intrepid Air Space Museum in New York City; Discovery will take Enterprise’s place at the Udvar-Hazy Complex in Virginia. Endeavour will reside at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. I’m not sure that’s a fitting end for these exquisite crafts. Seems to me that it’s tantamount to sending a Medal of Honor winner unnoticed to a 15-bed nursing home out in the sticks.
Again I find myself in deep contemplation of the 30 years I’ve spent with the Space Shuttle Program. And I say “spent with” in the most intimate of manners. Last month’s final landing of OV-105 Orbiter Endeavour hit me like a brick in the head. I believe that’s when I finally wrapped my brain around the finality of the events of these past few months. Since January of this year I’ve been feeling like a kindergartener with my fingers in my ears…”LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” Yes, I know it’s ending. No, I haven’t dealt with it just yet. For those who can’t seem to understand my fervor for the Shuttle Program, please stop asking (while laughing) “Whaddya gonna do when all this shuttle crap is over?” It’s not funny to me. It’s been an element of my very essence for almost three-quarters of my life. Let’s pull the plug on all NFL broadcasts this fall and see if you’re still giggling. For me, it holds that same power and romance. It’s been a huge part of who I am.
So how do we take 30 years of history and give it a proper burial? You can start by witnessing the end. 8 July at 11:26 AM should be the very last time you can see a Shuttle orbiter launch vehicle leave the pad at Launch Complex 39A atop 6.5 million pounds of thrust. (As of now, the weather is sketchy, but still a GO.) When Atlantis makes the very last Shuttle blast into space, where will you be? (www.nasa.gov/ntv) Will you remember that day, that moment forever? If you are watching, how will you feel? With the Constellation program in limbo, when will history next be made? And who will be riding those rockets? As I’ve said in the recent past, there are a precious few chances to participate in history knowing full-well that it is happening. This is one of them.
My mother quoted to me once that a person dies three deaths: one when the body dies, the second when the soul departs, and a third when they are forgotten. As with the loss of any thing or person that is important to you, the most powerful way to honor them is to remember that they existed at all.
535 million miles.
Space Shuttle. B 1981. D 2011.
Thank you for taking the dreams of a nation into space and back. What a great ride it’s been.