Space Shuttle Atlantis: Hail & Farewell…MAYBE

The United States space shuttle Atlantis returned from a 12 day trip to the international Space Station (ISS) yesterday, during what is presently scheduled to be its last space mission.  The mission, named STS-132, (STS=Space Transportation System, the NASA designation for shuttle missions) is the 132nd space shuttle flight.  STS-132 flew 48 million miles.  Atlantis have flown more than $120 million miles during 32 space missions since it began operations in 1985.

In 2003, then-president GW Bush, partially in response to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, made the decision to terminate the space shuttle program by 2010.  However, this decision, tempered by the need to finish construction of the ISS, came with the initiation of a new human space program called Constellation, which was to some extent an upgraded and updated Saturn-Apollo program designed to return Americans to the moon by 2016 (later slipped to 2020), followed in as little as 5 to 10 years with trips to Mars.  US$9 billion have since been spent on Constellation.

Saturn-Apollo was America’s moon program.  Apollo 11 put the first two men on the moon in 1969 and Apollo 17 put the last two on that surface in December 1972, for a total of 12 Americans on the moon.  There were supposed to be three more moon missions, ending in Apollo 20, but then-president Nixon canceled funding for them in 1970, while concurrently supporting the development of the space shuttle program.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he commissioned the blue-ribbon group “Augustine Commission” to examine the true state of America’s space program before setting space policy.  When the panel released its findings, the most shocking revelation was that the Constellation program had been grossly underfunded, and could not possibly take humans back to the moon before 2030.  Additionally, humans missions to Mars weren’t even on the radar, based upon the program’s progress and foreseeable funding levels.

Finally, the time lapse between the space shuttle program termination and the beginning of Constellation’s capability to carry humans even to the ISS in low-Earth-orbit (LEO) was going to be at least 7 years, and likely longer.  During that period the USA would have no direct human access to space, but instead would be at the mercy of the Russians and perhaps later the Chinese, Indians and even possibly the Europeans before it once again possessed its own human-rated space transportation system.

However, the USA does depend upon private enterprise for access to space involving commercial and even military payloads.  Thus, president Obama and his advisers reasoned that the USA’s immediate LEO space transportation needs to the ISS could be met most quickly by private companies, if the NASA budget provided seed money for these companies to develop newer, better, and faster technologies that translated into a human-rated “space taxi” capable of transporting humans to and from the ISS.  But for these funds to become available, the space shuttle program would have to end as planned in 2010.

Further, it was reasoned that a trip to Mars or other deep space destination will require technologies not yet developed by either government or private enterprise because of the costs of doing so.  But funds could be available if Constellation was canceled.   Deep space destinations would then be reachable much sooner.

Thus, in accordance with this plan, there are only two shuttle missions left:  STS-133 on shuttle Discovery in September 2010, and STS-134 on shuttle Endeavor in November.  Both are supply missions to the ISS.  Though the schedule may slip into early 2011, these two are the last two approved shuttle flights.

Shuttle Atlantis will be utilized as a backup, ready to roll to the launch pad, for shuttle Endeavor’s STS-134 mission.  This is in keeping with the safety policy NASA instituted after the Columbia disaster, i.e., a second shuttle is always ready to launch on a rescue mission should something happen to primary mission shuttle on launch.

Because Atlantis will be essentially “ready to launch” on a crew rescue mission for the last Endeavor flight to the ISS if necessary, many are reasoning that the launch-ready Atlantis could and should be flown one last time, in June 2011, for one last re-supply mission to the ISS.  It would leave the ISS in better shape once the shuttle program lands.  It would also shorten by at least six months the time that the USA is without it own human space transportation system.

And finally, it would buy some time.  After all, the space shuttle has been America’s premier space vehicle for almost thirty years. It has transported hundreds of humans and most of the ISS components into orbit and made the several in-orbit repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope possible.  Significantly, it’s being retired without another system at least in development.

So hope that the White House and NASA approve that last mission for Atlantis.  Because when the final shuttle finally does land for the last time, it will be a very sad day…the end of a very proud era.