Twilight of the Shuttle

By Phil Plait | February 13, 2010 10:00 am

The Shuttle Endeavour launched into orbit last week, blazing upward on its penultimate mission to the International Space Station. As it approached, astronauts onboard the now nearly-complete station snapped this dramatic photo of the Orbiter:

sunset_shuttle

Stunning. And while I am a scientist and a realist, I can’t help but see the poetic and metaphoric nature of this shot. With just four remaining flights of the Space Shuttle, we soon really will be seeing it riding off into the sunset.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (50)

  1. Ooo, cool picture. So that’s earth at the lower left and atmosphere at the upper right, correct? I guess the atmosphere would be bluer where it’s thinner, so that sounds right.

  2. One Eyed Jack

    That’s not the shuttle. That is an angel.

    It’s being suppressed by the shadow government’s propaganda machine. Note the large, blue halo and lack of stars. If this is the shuttle, then where are the stars?

    (now removing tongue from cheek)

  3. NewEnglandBob
  4. John Paradox

    Happy trails to you
    until we meet again
    Happy trails to you
    keep smiling until then……

    J/P=?

  5. T_U_T

    The russians were capable to keep their manned space program through the fall of soviet union. Why you aren’t, even when you are still far(years?decades?) from soviet style collapse ?

  6. Thomas Siefert

    Made me think of the Judas Priest album cover for “Point of Entry”.

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

  7. T.E.L.

    T_U_T Said:

    “The russians were capable to keep their manned space program through the fall of soviet union. Why you aren’t, even when you are still far(years?decades?) from soviet style collapse ?”

    First, the U.S. can keep its manned program for the foreseeable future, if that’s what the Public want. Second, the Soviet program was never as well-funded as the U.S. program, so it wasn’t as much of a sacrifice to keep it at some level. It’s also just plain less expensive to loft a Soyuz than a shuttle orbiter (one weighs considerably less than the other). Third, when the Soviet Union fell apart the Russian constituency were hungry for symbols of their better days. Their space program fit the bill. In the U.S. people are still deluding themselves in masses that their country will always be on top of the World. They’re not hungry for that symbolic pride, yet.

  8. T_U_T

    Second, the Soviet program was never as well-funded as the U.S. program, so it wasn’t as much of a sacrifice to keep it at some level.

    Excuses, excuses and excuses. Why russians can build things far cheaper, far faster, and more reliably than you ? Try to find an excuse for that.

  9. Endeavour sunset video

  10. It’s also worth noting that the famous “Pale Blue Dot” picture taken by Voyager 1 has it’s 20th anniversary this weekend.

  11. Alwyn

    T_U_T Said:

    Excuses, excuses and excuses. Why russians can build things far cheaper, far faster, and more reliably than you ? Try to find an excuse for that.

    … less money sometimes leads to better engineering …

  12. T.E.L.

    T_U_T Said:

    “Excuses, excuses and excuses. Why russians can build things far cheaper, far faster, and more reliably than you ? Try to find an excuse for that.”

    >*burp*<

  13. Gary Ansorge

    8. T_U_T

    “Why russians can build things far cheaper, far faster, and more reliably than you ?”

    Reliably? I’d like to see some unbiased reportage of that.

    Cheaper? That part is easy. The average worker in Russia is paid 1/5th as much as the average worker in the USA, thus construction costs are also 1/5th as much as in the USA.
    Plus, they’re building old, fully developed, mass produced rockets. I believe our Atlas 5 missiles are at least as reliable as theirs and, adjusting for cost of living differentials, as cheap.

    We tried to build a fully re-usable craft but never went to mass production. THAT’S why it’s so much more expensive for the USA to get to the ISS than it is for the Russians.

    GAry 7

  14. bellaftheball

    More like Twilight of the Cullens! HA!

  15. DrFlimmer

    Ah, back online after a week, and such a beautiful new desktop background! Thanks Phil for sharing it! Awesome picture!

  16. If all goes well, I’ll be in Florida in September for the last shuttle launch. I’ve never seen one before, and I figure I might as well see the last one.

  17. Mchl

    T_U_T:
    How many N1 rockets did reach orbit?
    How many orbits did Buran log in?

    Exactly. How come Russians did not manage to do these better/faster/cheaper?

    Fascintaing, and perhaps revolutionary these projects might have been, but for some reasons they didn’t succeed, so it’s not like Soviet/Russian space program is so flawless.

    Soyuz is AFAIK the first and only mass-production manned space vehicle. That’s a feat in itself. On the other hand it’s simply getting old, and its capabilities are not that great, and there are no clear plans to replace it.

    Oh, and I’m writing all this as a representative of a nation with no space program (manned or unmanned) of its own.

  18. jcm

    Cool pic. Was it taken during sunset or sunrise? It might become the next wallpaper on my desktop.

  19. T.E.L.

    jcm Said:

    “Cool pic. Was it taken during sunset or sunrise?”

    Probably sunset. It was taken as the Shuttle approached for rendezvous, which means it almost certainly was trailing behind the ISS.

  20. For the bragging Russians out there, I only want to know one thing: How did it feel in Russia when the cosmonauts landed on the moon? :-)

    Okay, playful ribbing aside, I’m sad to see the shuttle program coming to a close. The space shuttle has been a part of American culture for nearly my entire life, and so when that last shuttle flies, I feel like a part of me will be coming to an end as well. And I think about my 4 month old son, who will never watch a shuttle launch on TV or experience the highs and lows that our generation has with this space vessel.

    My hope is that with the shuttle budget being pumped back into NASA after September that they’ll pick up the pace on getting our new Moon and Mars-ready crafts built. I’m willing to go a few years without the shuttle, but only if it means that when my son is in the 4th or 5th grade he’ll be watching the next generation of astronauts land on the moon. If budget cuts axe that plan, then I’ll have some issues with our government, but I’ll wait to see what happens in the next fiscal year before I start crying for action.

    And as always, if anyone knows what it would take to buy a used space shuttle, that would be totally cool. I’d even settle for the non-flying versions, or parts even.

  21. wev

    Qikipedia on Twitter just picked this up!

  22. Mount

    I wonder if there are enough parts laying around to put together another Buran orbiter. I know it would be more expensive to operate than the U.S. shuttle, but it would have zero flight hours on it.

    Too bad the original Buran got crushed by its own hangar. /tear

    @ Chris Swanson: I also will try to make it out to watch the last shuttle launch.

  23. Every now and then, just as you get used to seeing relatively fantastic pictures being thrown around, something like this comes up and resets the wonder switch. Good stuff!

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    Poignant.

    Beautiful.

    Bittersweet.

    We are very fast approaching the end of the Shuttle era 1980-2010.

    They were flawed but magnificent machines – perhaps the most complex and marvellous we have ever built – despite not living up to their initial expectations.

    The shuttles are not even gone yet but I miss them already.

    What is heart-breaking for me is that we haven’t got an immediate replacement ready to take over and, I fear, we may not have for some time. :-(

    There was another photo not too long ago that this reminded me of too which captured a shuttle on the launch pad at sunset. (Atlantis I think?) For some reason, it brought a real lump to my throat.

    I’ll have to see if I can find it – I’ve kept it somewhere -, and work out how to embed it in another comment here. IVAN3MAN or Scibuff if you’re out there, can you let me know how to do that please?

  25. Zach

    Shuttledammerung?

  26. 8. T_U_T Says: “Why russians can build things far cheaper, far faster, and more reliably than you ? Try to find an excuse for that.”

    Because they have been building the same basic booster design for over 50 years and spacecraft design for over 40. You tend to get pretty efficient by that point.

    - Jack

  27. 16. Chris Swanson Says: “I’ll be in Florida in September for the last shuttle launch. I’ve never seen one before, and I figure I might as well see the last one.”

    I’m thinking of doing the same thing, if I can afford it. I saw STS-1 land at Edwards, so watching the last one take off would make a nice set of bookends.

    - Jack

  28. DenverAstro

    Relating to the comments here, I would like to add this:
    Phil, I have a question to ask you and this board but it is a little complex so please bear with me for a minute. The last era of great exploration into the unknown was about 500 years ago with sailing ships crossing the oceans to establish colonies in the new world. This was an extremely dangerous venture as demonstrated by the success rate of the first colonies on this continent and the number of shipwrecks that can be found all over the place.
    One of the objections I hear all the time about human spaceflight is how expensive it is. One of the reasons for the high cost of human spaceflight is the safety factor. We want to do everything we can think of to make sure nothing goes wrong and no lives are lost. Don’t get me wrong, the losses we have experienced already are both tragic and heart wrenching. However, I think we have to accept a certain amount of serious risk while developing the technologies required to establish a firm foothold outside the atmosphere of our home planet. The expense of sending men into space could, I think, be greatly reduced if we could find a balance between making flight as safe as reasonably possible while at the same time, cutting back a bit on some of the materials required to pass muster for use in space. Let’s face it, space hardware is horrendously expensive.
    What would have happened if the old world explorers had refused to sail the seas unless they had ships that were designed to be completely unsinkable no matter what? I think we would still be waiting in Europe, don’t you? The America’s would still be the exclusive territory of the native Americans. Great for them, but the rest of the world would be a very different place and probably not for the better.
    My question then is this; Don’t you and your posters here think that maybe now is the time to rethink our approach to human spaceflight a little? When the Russians were manning the MIR station, they used to criticize American’s for wanting all the fancy bells and whistles that, let’s be honest, they couldn’t afford. In spite of that, they managed to keep a space station in orbit for a heck of a long time and were very successful. They have had the same approach to military flight hardware. Their planes can land and take off from a corn field, where we need multi-million dollar facilities to maintain our high tech planes and hundreds of support crewmen. Couldn’t we look at our human spaceflight program a little more pragmatically? Sure, I accept that there is more risk but in the end, if we are careful, wouldn’t it be worth it?

  29. Matthew Ota

    I just think it is a nice photo.

  30. here

    DenverAstro,

    You ask, “if we are careful, wouldn’t it be worth it?”

    Would it be worth it? And in what terms?

    Explorers were searching for trade routes; settlers were looking for fertile “unowned” lands and a new life; countries and companies were searching for natural resources and land to grow cash crops.

    You mention safety factors as being one factor in the high costs of human space flight, but the other is that it just takes a lot of resources to get fast enough and go high enough to get there.

  31. T_U_T

    Cheaper? That part is easy. The average worker in Russia is paid 1/5th as much as the average worker in the USA, thus construction costs are also 1/5th as much as in the USA.

    Do you seriously suggest here, that the bulk of a spacecraft cost are worker wages ?

    Because they have been building the same basic booster design for over 50 years and spacecraft design for over 40. You tend to get pretty efficient by that point.

    Something you are not capable of.

  32. Penultimate? I thought there were four more missions after this. Are those not to the space station?

  33. jwoww

    T_U_T- What is your nation capable of? What have you done?

  34. peter jones

    I would like to offer all the astronauts a free week at my hotel, in hungary, i have even dedicated a movie to it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU-6CozTbfw

  35. T_U_T

    @34 even if the answer were literally ‘nothing at all’ it would be irrelevant, so don’t even try this asinine tu quoque attack.

  36. K. Ries

    @T_U_T,

    You do realize by being a troll on a website you’re not doing your nation any favors, right? You’re not rebutting anything that anybody is saying. You’re just trolling. Nothing more.

    Also his “you too” attack is perfectly relevant. The fact that you couldn’t answer it says quite a bit. You don’t get to say “America Sucks”, but then when somebody says “Russia sucks” you say that’s asinine. The only thing that’s asinine here is you.

    But the real core issue, when it comes to your ridiculous postings, is merely that you are an anonymous troll on a website that is trying to just show us a picture of something beautiful. Sorry if you can only concentrate on your overwhelming nationalistic pride.

  37. Jerome

    I looked at the ultra-embiggened version of the photo from NASA’s website, and zooming in on the shuttle, there is a very strange, yet somehow familiar looking white spot in front it:

    http://i.imgur.com/MDlHS.jpg

    Oh no!

  38. The Mad LOLScientist, FCD

    I could almost hear the Innert00bz overloading as half a gazillion people flocked to this and immediately made it their new wallpaper. (It had been a year and a half since the last time I’d changed mine, anyway.) =^..^=

  39. T_U_T

    Sorry if you can only concentrate on your overwhelming nationalistic pride.

    1. first, my own country sucks an order of magnitude more than both Russia and USA together. So much for my overwhelming nationalistic pride ;)
    2. tu quoque is still a fallacy
    3. pointing out that your country is the ultimate loser of the space race because you had it but gave it up is not trolling but a sad fact.

  40. Jon Hanford

    @#22 Mount, I recently read an article in the Russian(?) press titled “Soviet space shuttle could bail out NASA”. In it several startling claims were made.

    “Pavel Sharov from Cosmonauts News Magazine explains the advantages the Soviets had over their rivals in the U.S.—-

    “The USSR surpassed the Americans in technology – U.S. shuttles can only be landed by humans, while the Buran lands automatically,” Sharov said.”

    That’s the entire quote. Besides being inaccurate (Shuttles have autopilot capabilities), Buran flew (unmanned and computerless) just once.

    Then this revelation:

    “Magomet Talboev was one of the pilots who test-flew the shuttle without going into orbit. He said the Soviet authorities had high hopes for the multi-billion dollar spacecraft.—

    “The Energia-Buran programme was started to get the capability to attack the United States, just like the shuttle was able to attack the USSR. We also wanted to take the Skylab space station from orbit. Buran was supposed to put it in its cargo bay and deliver it back to Earth for studies,” Tolboev said. ”

    Wha?? Times must be tough in mother Russia. The piece did go on to say that Buran flew only once and was destroyed in storage in 2002. They mention how Buran may come to the rescue of NASA, but no mention at all of the massive Energyia rocket necessary to loft Buran. This is just wishful thinking on someones part. Why go back to this monstrosity? The article is here: (http) ://rt.com/prime-time/2008-11-15/Soviet_space_shuttle_could_bail_out_NASA.html

  41. Funny how this awesome picture turned into a back and forth on who’s space program is better. Every memory I have of our space program seems to center around the shuttle, so I’m also sad to see it coming to an end. I think it’s an awesome photo, and definitely going on the desktop this week!

  42. mfumbesi

    Lovely pic.
    Pity that it is one of last image of the Shuttle in space.

  43. Remember the shuttle images in 2001? The wonder of fiction made real.

  44. I was multi-tasking in my man cave (basement) with NASA on the TV and happened to turn around when they were showing video of this. It was stunning as I kinda stood there with my mouth open. I heard someone in Mission Control say “wow!” Love this pic.

  45. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Great shot. :-)

    But this video :

    http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1281242597482

    is still the most spectacular and beautiful thing I have ever seen. :-)

    Hence I gotta share it with y’all even after the BA has already done so earlier here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/11/26/incredible-shuttle-launch-video/

    Surprised no one has linked it here yet. ;-)

    (Just in case you missed it before. If you’ve seen it already, then watch it again – its worth it. I for one will never grow tired of it! Thanks to Michael Interbartolo III.)

  46. Messier Tidy Upper

    Latest news :

    The Shuttle Endeavour (seen in the excellent photo above) has now undocked from the now 98% completed International Space Station and is heading home on Sunday night – see :

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/19/tech/main6225049.shtml?tag=latest

    & is now heading home.

    It might even have landed safely already … I hope.

    Update added upon edit :

    Not quite – looks like a rain check has been made on that via :

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/main/index.html

    Endeavour Landing Times Updated
    Sun, 21 Feb 2010 02:49:19 PM UTC+1030

    STS-130 mission managers opted to forego a planned orbit adjust burn, changing space shuttle Endeavour’s deorbit and landing times by a few minutes.

    Weather permitting, Endeavour’s deorbit burn will occur at 9:14 p.m. EST Sunday, leading to a landing at Kennedy Space Center at 10:20 p.m. There is a second Kennedy landing opportunity at 11:55 p.m. There also are two opportunities at Edwards Air Force Base in California early Monday at 1:25 a.m. and 3 a.m. Ground tracks for Endeavour’s landing opportunities are posted on NASA’s Web:

    Best wishes & well done Endeavour :-)

    - StevoR a.k.a. Plutonium being from Pluto a.k.a. Messier Tidy Upper

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