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On July 8, 2011, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the space shuttle Atlantis on its final mission. The mission was not only Atlantis final mission but also the last of NASA's 135 missions into outer space. The thirty year long Space Shuttle Program has played a very important part in unfolding human space flight possibilities. In the past three decades the space shuttle missions launched by NASA have placed innumerable satellites in their orbit thus enabling major advances in science, technology, telecommunications, and defense.

 Final Launch of Atlantis

Atlantis, the space shuttle slotted for NASA’s 135th and final mission was launched on July 8, 2011 at 11.29 EDT from the J F Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thousands thronged to watch the space shuttle lift off on its final mission. Chants of 'USA' rented the air. The launch was delayed by a few seconds to investigate the retraction of a vent arm. The launch was a momentous one in many ways with the launch director Mike Leibach announcing “We’ll never see that again”. The shuttle carried a four-member crew, led by Chris Ferguson, on a mission to replenish the supplies of a space station.

Final Mission

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Program and of Atlantis, flight STS-135, was authorized in October 2010 by US President, Barack Obama. The primary purpose of the flight was to deliver 8580 lbs supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) to keep it functional till next year. By 2012 the commercial space crafts Orbital and SpaceX are expected to be ready to deliver ISS supplies. The shuttle also carried out experiments to ascertain if it feasible for robots to refuel the satellites currently in orbit. The mission was not in the original schedule of space shuttle missions. Even as late as January 2011, uncertainties regarding the funding of the mission and other technical concerns plagued NASA. The flight made use of the Launch on Need preparations that had been made.

The Return of Atlantis

The space shuttle Atlantis landed on July 21, 2011, at 5.57 EDT completing the mission STS-135. With the landing, the shuttle had completed a total of thirty-three missions in space and spent over 306 days. In these missions Atlantis had deployed over fourteen shuttles and recorded seven Mir dockings and twelve ISS dockings. The mission, initially scheduled to last twelve days was extended by a day to accommodate the delay in transferring supplies.

Space Shuttle Program

With its first space shuttle launch on April 12, 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program took off. Known officially as the Space Transportation System (STS), the program had launched manned shuttles to space on various missions for over thirty years. The space shuttle Columbia was the first to be launched into space on the mission STS – 1.

NASA began to plan the Space Shuttle Program before the landing of Apollo XI on moon in 1969. President Nixon formally flagged off the program in 1972. The planning, operations, and launch of the missions were fully managed through the 1970s leading up to the historic launch in 1981.

Some of the most important missions undertaken by the space shuttles of NASA include the transportation of the Hubble Telescope into its orbit and its servicing, the transportation of crew and supplies to the International Space Station and to Mir, launching various research and telecommunications satellites, and to launch defense satellites.

The Space Shuttle Program was marked by two disasters in 1986 and in 2003. In January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated seventy-three seconds into the STS – 51 flight. Space shuttle Columbia broke up on its mission STS – 107 in February 2003. The disaster was attributed to a damage sustained during its launch. The disasters only served the NASA team to work harder at their Return to Flight mission and make the shuttles safer for their crew. In all NASA flew 135 missions in these thirty years with immense benefit to science and mankind.

What Next?

With the landing of space shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, and the end of the Space Shuttle Program, questions about subsequent human space flights have cropped up. NASA has now initiated work on a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to conduct explorations in outer space. To manage the International Space Station US astronauts will need to rely on the Russian Soyuz crafts. NASA shall rent seats aboard the Soyuz crafts at approximately US $63 million per astronaut for a mission. By this year end private spacecrafts with supplies to the ISS are likely to be launched. These shall not be manned by a crew, though.


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