CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The space shuttle era officially ended early Thursday as Atlantis touched down under a cloudless and star-spangled sky at Kennedy Space Center.
After its two signature sonic booms, the spacecraft seemed to suddenly drop out of the darkness on the three-mile runway, completing its long glide home from orbit precisely on the mark at 5:57 a.m. EDT.
The safe return of a shuttle and its crew from a dangerous journey is always a cause for celebration but this one – the final landing after 135 missions spanning 30 years – was bittersweet.
The next mission for Atlantis will be as a tourist attraction. America’s astronaut corps will be consigned to hitching rides aboard Russian rockets, at least for the next few years until private companies prove they can safely fly in space. And another 2,300 workers at the space center will get pink slips within the week, only the latest in continuing waves of layoffs expected that will eventually add up to some 8,000 lost jobs for Florida’s Space Coast.
The last mission was somewhat mundane, a 13-day trip primarily to restock the International Space Station with supplies and spare parts. But history and the uncertain future of America’s space program gave the final flight poignancy and weight. At Mission Control in Houston, the viewing room was filled with former flight directors and their families.
It was, said NASA mission commentator Rob Navias as Atlantis burned through the atmosphere on its final descent, a “day of mixed emotions.”
The shuttle program rang up many successes, topped by the construction of the International Space Station, an effort that spanned a dozen years and 37 missions, as well as the daring space-walking repair of the Hubble telescope, an instrument that has given scientists unprecedented glimpses of how stars and galaxies form and die.
But it also never lived up to its original conception as a cheap “space truck.” It was complicated, expensive at $1 billion-plus per launch and risky, failing at a sobering rate of every 50 missions. The Challenger explosion in 1986 and disintegration of Columbia in 2003 killed a total of 14 crew members.
The three remaining shuttles will be retired to museums, with Atlantis remaining at Kennedy Space Center, Discovery going to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and Endeavor to a science center in Los Angeles.
Atlantis alone racked up 307 days in space and traveled nearly 126 million miles during its 33 flights.
NASA’s long-term plans are to develop rockets and vehicles capable of visiting Mars or an asteroid, but both goals likely remain at least a decade away – and will depend greatly on political and budgetary support that will pose challenges to maintain as Washington focuses on slashing federal spending.
The most immediate plans call for NASA to pay Russia to deliver Americans to the International Space Station, at $50 million or more a seat.
The space agency will simultaneously bankroll a new private space fleet to ferry astronauts and payloads into orbit. None of the four companies developing spacecraft – Blue Origin, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. – have home bases in Florida. They’ve aced test launches but industry experts say shooting humans into orbit is at least three years away.