Atlantis makes perfect final landing

Atlantis makes perfect final landing

Atlantis landed just before sunrise at 6 am local time, completing its 13-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), with its Commander paying tribute to the long-running space shuttle programme.

Around 2,000 people gathered to watch the historic landing, which came as a long-awaited — and much-dreaded — milestone marking the end of an eventful era for the US manned spaceflight.

Coming home to a future clouded by tight budgets and uncertain political support, Commander Christopher Ferguson guided Atlantis through a sweeping left overhead turn and lined up on runway 15, quickly descending into the glare of powerful xenon spotlights.

The mood was electric, both sad and triumphant, as a vehicle that had been hurtling through space a little more than an hour earlier rolled to a graceful stop at the Kennedy Space Centre.

"Mission complete, Houston," Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson radioed to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. "After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle found its place in history, and it's come to a final stop."

"We copy your wheels stop and we'll take this opportunity to congratulate you, Atlantis, as well as the thousands of passionate individuals across this great spacefaring nation who truly empowered this incredible spacecraft, which for three decades has inspired millions around the globe," capcom Barry "Butch" Wilmore said from Mission Control. "Job well done, America."

It was the 33rd voyage for Atlantis, and the 135th for NASA's reusable winged spaceships. The 30-year space shuttle programme, which began with the launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981, is at a close.

"The space shuttle changed the way we viewed the world, and it changed the way we view our universe," he said.

"There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring. Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this programme to such a fitting end. God bless all of you. God bless the United States of America."

Ferguson led a veteran crew of four on this last mission, including pilot Doug Hurley and specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. They were the last of 355 spaceflyers to ride aboard the space shuttle over the years.

"We have had just an event-filled and packed mission," Ferguson said from space yesterday. "We're not going to fully appreciate the significance of the event until after the wheels have stopped."

The space shuttle is a pinnacle of complex engineering and robotics, but it is also a very human machine, made possible only through the cooperative work of thousands of people in space and on the ground.

"Really the heart and soul of the space programme is the people that work in the space programme," Magnus said from orbit. "It's a group of people unlike any other field because everyone's so passionate, so dedicated."

When contemplating the shuttle's end, the word that has come up most often among those at NASA is "bittersweet" — a sadness that it has to end, but a joy that it achieved so much.

"I know that I will feel a sense of completion, as well as a touch of sadness and just reflective reverence of what we've been able to accomplish over these last several years," said Kwatsi Alibaruho, the mission's lead flight director.

He predicted feeling "a mix of apprehension, sadness and excitement about what the future might hold, wrapped up into one."

In Houston, hundreds of people flocked to NASA's Johnson Space Centre to watch the final shuttle landing live on a huge TV screen from the home of Mission Control, where shuttle missions have been managed for the last three decades.

On the space station, NASA astronaut Mike Fossum reported that he could see the glow from Atlantis' re-entry from the orbiting lab's Cupola observation deck.

The STS-135 mission was the 37th shuttle flight to dock at the space station. Shuttle astronauts have spent a total of 234 days docked at the outpost between the launch of its first module in 1998 and 2011.

The end of this mission heralds a difficult time for NASA, where the space agency finds itself without an American vehicle to fly astronauts for the first time since 1975, when the last Apollo capsule flew on the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

The gap between the Apollo and the shuttle programs lasted six years, and NASA is now looking at a gap of at least four years between the shuttle era and what will come next.
For the near future, US astronauts will ride aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to serve their stints on the orbital outpost at a cost of up to USD 63 million per seat.

NASA is hoping that soon American private space companies will be able to take over the job of ferrying cargo and crew to the station.

With the end of the shuttle programme and the considerable cost of operating it, NASA plans to devote its resources to developing a new heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule that can carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

President Barack Obama has set the goal for NASA for sending people to an asteroid by 2025, and on to Mars by the mid 2030s.

"The future is bright," Walheim said. "It'll be hard, but we'll get there and we'll be going farther and farther, going new places real soon."

The decision to retire the shuttles now was made back in 2004, under President George W Bush, in the wake of the 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts, including Indian-American Kalpana Chawla, and destroyed that orbiter.

Another catastrophe, the destruction of the shuttle Challenger just after liftoff in 1986, also killed seven astronauts.

The remaining orbiters, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour, will now retire to museums. Discovery will go on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington, DC; Endeavour will be sent to Los Angeles' California Science Center; and Atlantis will come back close to where it started at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center.

The prototype shuttle Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric testing but never flew in orbit, will be moved from its display space at the Smithsonian to New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, to make room for Discovery.

"Many will say the space shuttle programme comes to a close," said Bill Moore, chief operating officer of the KSC Visitors Center, during a press conference yesterday. "For us here at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the shuttle programme is going to live on in a very vibrant way."

The landing was bittersweet, and not just for sentimental reasons: Atlantis' touchdown signals the beginning of a fresh wave of layoffs for the shuttle programme, which has already been hard hit by workforce reductions.

About 3,200 shuttle programme contractors are to get pink slips tomorrow, NASA programme manager John Shannon said last month.

By mid-August, only 1,000 contractors will remain to help with the transition to shuttle retirement, he said. About 1,000 NASA civil servants will be shifted to other duties at the space agency.

NASA is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support the development of new private-sector spaceships that could carry astronauts starting around 2015.

One of the companies receiving NASA funding, California-based SpaceX, could start taking supplies to the space station by the end of this year. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp, is on track to start unmanned cargo trips within the next year or two.

Other companies hoping to build spaceships for NASA include Blue Origin, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp.

Meanwhile, NASA is proceeding with a multi-billion-dollar effort to develop a new crew vehicle called Orion and a new heavy-lift rocket currently known as the Space Launch System.

The space agency's current timetable calls for sending astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to a near-Earth asteroid by the mid-2020s and to Mars by the mid-2030s. That timetable, however, is heavily dependent on funding levels over the next decade.

The end of the shuttle era came 42 years and a day after what was arguably NASA's greatest success: the Apollo 11 moon landing.

NASA mission managers vowed to keep the spirit of Apollo — and of the shuttle programme — alive during the coming transitional years.

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