Archive for May 26, 2011

The End of the Space Shuttle Program

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Another anniversary that I missed recently was that of the final flight of Discovery which as part of Mission STS133 (STS stands for Space Transportation System, the programme’s official name) spent its final 14 days in service between February 24th and March 9th.

2011, in fact marks the end of the entire Shuttle programme and by the end of this year all the remaining vehicles will be retired after 30 years of service.

In all six shuttles were built. Enterprise was only designed to test the craft’s ability to land (after taking off attached to the top of a Jumbo Jet) and was never actually designed to be space worthy. The remaining five were all fully equipped to go into orbit and of these five Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour remain in service. The other two were tragically lost whilst in use, Challenger shortly after take off in January 1986 and Columbia during re-entry in February 2003.

The concept of a returnable space craft was initially developed in the early 1970’s, with the first test flights almost a decade later in the early 1980’s. I can clearly remember the excitement of these initial launches, watching these ungainly shuttles struggling to leave the atmosphere strapped to a huge rusty looking rocket and then landing after the mission was over on what I always thought were worryingly small wheels… And over their thirty years of service, even if the Shuttles have not exactly revolutionised space travel as had originally been predicted, their contribution to space exploration has been unquestionable.

From the early Spacelab experiments, and servicing the Mir and the amazing, ever expanding International Space Station, through to crucial work correcting optical defects in the Hubble telescope, the ability to send astronauts up into space, carry out set tasks and bring them home in a controlled way, I think has been of huge benefit to Science and mankind’s development.

So the end of an era, sad but maybe not entirely unsurprising in these cash strapped times. The total cost of the shuttle programme by the end of its final mission has been estimated at about $180 Billion, which when divided by the roughly 140 missions equates to $1.2 Billion a flight….

But regardless of the huge costs involved, I have a feeling that a second space race is imminent with new fuels and technologies, and new countries getting involved. Our future lies in the stars, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how the next generation of space vehicles develop.

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