End of the Shuttle Era

Space Shuttle Atlantis began her final descent from space this morning at 4:49, Eastern Daylight Time when her engines were fired to drop her back into Earth’s atmosphere. Just over an hour later, her wheels touched the tarmac at Kennedy Space Center. She was the oldest Orbiter in the shuttle fleet after the losses of Challenger and Columbia, and was the last to visit space.

The Shuttle Fleet was designed in the early 1970s, and the first operational flight was in 1982. The shuttle orbiter and the launch stack (the combo called the Space Transport System, or STS) was designed before the advancement of computer design. Here are a few facts I find interesting about the program:

The now iconic rusty orange External Tank was painted white for the first 2 missions. The engineers calculated that the paint alone weighed over 600 pounds, and decided to leave it unpainted on the remaining missions. 

It was, and still is to this day, the most complex machine ever built. It has so many parts that even if every part was designed to work 99.99% of the time, thousands would fail during every mission.

The Shuttle flies less than 200 miles over the surface of the Earth. If your car could go straight up, you could drive to where the Shuttle flies in a couple of hours. The Shuttle covers this distance in just over 8 minutes. The trick to staying in orbit isn’t really the altitude, it’s the speed. The Shuttle is flying at 17,500 miles per hour to stay above the Earth. 

The end of the Shuttle program marks the beginning of a new era in American spaceflight. It is currently unknown exactly what this era will bring, but it will probably be private industry. For the curious, check out Space Exploration Technologies and their spacecraft Dragon. This mission is likely the end of government funded manned American spaceflight. Interestingly, the end of the Apollo program started 42 years ago today when Buzz and Neil lifted off from the moon. As soon as America had landed, national support for the program started to disappear. I think today is a fitting day to retire the Shuttle Program, and I hope that every engineer and astronaut involved in the program can look back fondly at the machines that they designed, built, and flew over the past three decades. I hope that America’s next ride to space is even more successful than the Space Shuttle has been.

I would say “Welcome home, Atlantis”; but the Earth is not a spaceship’s home.