… and then there were none.

By Phil Plait | July 21, 2011 7:21 am

At 09:57:54 GMT today, July 21st, 2011, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis rolled to a safe stop on Runway 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, marking the end of last Shuttle flight.

It flew 33 missions since its first launch in 1985, spending over 300 days in space and making nearly 5000 orbits of the Earth. It visited Mir, the ISS, and even Hubble.

With this landing, the Era of the Shuttle is over. But our presence in space is not. NASA still has working rockets that can carry machines into space, and is working on developing a new rocket system. Private companies are gathering the capability to go to space and to low-Earth orbit. Other countries still have the ability to take humans into space as well. As Americans we pride ourselves on our history of exploration and being the first. For now, that pride may have to wait.

But I’ll note that after Apollo 17, the last Moon landing, it was 8 years before the first Shuttle launch. I’m hoping the current gap that began this morning will last much less than that. I wish there were no gap at all, but here we are. The status of manned spaceflight could be a lot better right now, but things could also be worse.

And don’t forget that the House of Representatives is planning on gutting NASA, canceling the James Webb Space Telescope, and more. If the last flight of the Shuttle makes you sad, I suggest you channel that energy and use it to contact your Representative and Senator.

The Shuttle may now be Earthbound, but that is no reason for us to be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: Atlantis, Space Shuttle

Comments (72)

  1. BruceK

    Actually, the gap was less than six years – the last Apollo launch was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in July 1975.

    Any word on how the efforts to man-rate the Atlas 5 are going?

  2. Adam

    NASA has been doing more and more science, but they have done less and less manned exploration. The glory days of manned exploration were really over before I was even born. But if I had to choose between JPL probes to other planets, Kepler, Hubble and others vs. flag planting and PR missions, I would take the former. Manned space exploration stopped when we left the moon. The shuttle was a huge step backwards, and its end, while wounding national pride, is not a huge loss. I suspect if you were born after Apollo, you just have less national pride to be wounded.

  3. M. A. Green

    I live on the east coast, and got up early this morning just to watch the landing on NASA tv. They mentioned after she landed that she’s traveled over 5 million miles. What a workhorse. Welcome home, Atlantis. Thanks for keeping our people safe.

  4. Kevin

    The Human Adventure is Just Beginning…

  5. Wasn’t Skylab between the moon landings and the first Shuttle launch? And Apollo-Soyuz?

  6. Icky

    Our dreams can only go as far as we let them but if we keep pushing, we can go anywhere.

  7. Paul

    “after Apollo 17, the last Moon landing, it was 8 years before the first Shuttle launch”

    The true gap was less than 6 years, which was still an eternity for this schoolboy. NASA was still flying during shortly after Apollo 17 – 3 Skylab missions in 1983 and Apollo–Soyuz in 1975.

  8. Melissa

    I’m too angry at politics right now to do anything but when I simmer down I’m contacting both Keith Ellison & Al Franken. Thankfully I’ve met both of them personally so it should be no problem getting a manned space flight program back up and running. I’ll mention the James Webb telescope thing too. Just because you’re my boo, Phil.

  9. wfr

    The last gap between American manned missions was seven years, if you count Skylab.

  10. UmTutSut

    I watched the first shuttle launch on an el cheapo 19″ TV sitting in an Alexandria, VA apartment. I watched the last shuttle landing on my smartphone while riding the Washington, DC Metro subway. What a long, strange trip it’s been. And how the technology has changed!

  11. We watched Atlantis touch down this morning. It was very bittersweet. I hope the US continues space exploration in the future

  12. Mark

    Good night, sweet Shuttle. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

    I hope the spirit and dreams of the children during Apollo will be kept alive in the private companies now vying for control of our stairway to the heavens. Perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll look beyond financial gain and seek to create an orbiting habitat.. or a Moon base.. or a Mars colony. Perhaps, some day in the near future, we’ll send a few brave humans to the surface of a nearby planet and leave them there to create a new future. Perhaps I’ll be alive to see it.

  13. Peter Davey

    Robert A Heinlein, in his “Future History”, suggested that the first manned trips into space would be followed by the “Crazy Years” – a period of social, political, and economic upheaval during which spaceflight came to an end, only to resume later.

    Nature imitating Art?

  14. I was sitting on my balcony at 5:54 this morning when I heard the boom boom. I live in Orlando. I’ve always been fascinated with the shuttle and have seen live launches and gone behind the scenes for a tour of the KSC where I saw a shuttle being prepped. I teared up this morning. I’m wearing my STS 107 shirt today. I will miss this.

  15. john

    That’ll do pig… That’ll do

  16. badge

    I saw the pictures of Discovery when they rolled it out after gutting it for display wherever they are sending it.. Really sad to see such a proud majestic beauty be reduced to what looks like a cardboard facsimile… I hope we are able to make the leap to manned spaceflight again.. Yes there are problems here on earth but we need to go out there.. I wonder if there would have been more of an uproar had the program still had a face they could recognize? The shuttle crews were many, and sorry to say, faceless.. There were no John Glenn, or Niel Armstrong types during the shuttle.. Yes they were heroes but they were nameless and faceless to the everyday Americans who didn’t follow the space program that closely…

  17. Farewell, beautiful ships …

  18. Anchor

    Paul: Just to fix your typo, the 3 Skylab missions were in 1973, before Apollo-Soyuz.

    Phil meant it took ~8 years to develop the shuttle. Yet we were rocketless (in terms of man-rated) for 6 years. I don’t think it will take that long to get Atlas V AND Falcon Heavy ready.

    The threatened cancellation of JWST is an absolute disgrace and we MUST turn that around.

  19. Paul

    It was time and past time for the shuttle to go. It never came anywhere close to achieving the cost and flight rate goals that had been promised. Expendable launchers will be much less expensive for most missions, and promise to quickly become even more economical.

    Maybe once there’s a robust space effort based on these launchers, there will be enough traffic to justify efforts into new reusable launch vehicles. Until then, the shuttles can go to their museums, to serve as cautionary examples of what happens when you try to force technology in directions for which it isn’t yet ready.

  20. Alan(UK)

    I am no great fan of the Shuttle or of manned spaceflight in general. The original idea was for a space plane that could go up and down at low cost and with enough capacity to carry big military satellites.

    Although a lot of its components were technically reusable, it required extensive refurbishment between trips. No commercial satellites were carried after the first few launches. (Why risk the lives of 7 persons and a quarter of the fleet for a communications satellite?) Fortunately the military needs largely disappeared. Altogether, it has done far fewer trips than intended, at a much higher price.

    It can only reach LEO – anything going beyond that has to leave the passengers behind. Nobody went to L1 to fix SOHO. Nobody is going out to L2 to fix the JWST.

    We can send unmanned spacecraft to places that man could never go – to comets, the surface of Venus, the limits of the Solar System. Telescopes can operate untended in space for years at a time. Hubble has been an enormous success but there will never be another one like it.

  21. Farewell Space Shuttles and thankyou.

    We’ve come so far, done so much. We cannot stop now. Can we?

    Why is it always twenty years away?

    It has been twenty years from returning to the Moon as humans, landing on Mars in person, developing cheap nuclear fusion as our main energy source.

    Ever since about 1970.

    I am so sick of “we’ll do this one day in the distant future.”

    When we should be doing this now – or yesterday.

  22. So that’s it.

    Finito. Owarimasu. Fin.

    See also :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/07/20/atlantis-launch-in-3d/#comment-400142

    We owe the Space Shuttle so much.

    ‘Hubble’, ‘Galileo’, ‘Magellan’ and so very much more.

    Thankyou to all those who built, worked for and flew aboard the first and so far last of the resuable spaceplanes.

    You created a wonder of the modern world that has been sustained and unequalled for thirty years. That has delivered so much in knowledge, in beauty and in bliss.

    135 missions – 133 successful landings. So many memories.

    To those now unemployed, to those who’ve given so much who are now facing such uncertain futures – best wishes and hopes.

    What now?

    Hope the Russians are extra charitable and allow the Americans who won the race to the Moon their steeply-paid-for places on the old rocketry “living fossil” Soyuz flights.

    I wish the private space companies the very best of fortunes. I hope they woerk as planned. They’d *better* work as planned.

    Otherwise in Bender’s words from Futurama – “We’re boned!” :-o

    I hope NASA comes back from this.
    I hope they soar again.
    I hope my fears that this marks the end of human spaceflight capability by the United States are wrong.

  23. Josie

    I am glad for all the science NASA is does. We worked out a lot of kinks for manned space flight and now it’s time for the businesses to take it forward. NASA gets to work out kinks for inter planetary travel. Eventually that too will go to the capitalist minded folk.

    While it’s a bittersweet farewell to the Shuttle and all the program has represented to me all my life, it is time to go on. We progress from the science, to the realm of engineering and on to the business of business. From my perspective that is how it has been and is supposed to be.

    So long and thanks for all the tech…can hardly wait for what’s next NASA :D

  24. Floyd

    The Shuttles were considered “better, faster, cheaper.”

    We need long term “Re-useable” to actually be able to have a permanent presence on the Moon or Mars. A friend of mine in Portland Ore. is in a group that’s trying to make that presence real by using the existing lava tubes on the Moon as permanent lunar homes.

  25. I suggest you channel that energy and use it to contact your Representative and Senator.

    Who should an Australian contact?

    My local Member of Parliament? I wish they were interested.

    The United States of America still leads the free, civilised, Western world. Still sets a key example. Remains the last superpower tottering on shaky feet.

    There is a dreadful pause.

    Totalitarian, “Communist” China is catching up fast.

    The US of A “came in peace for all mankind”. Do we really want to bet our kiddies futures – & our grandchildren’s and who knows how many generations to come – on the so-called “people’s” Republic of China being so benevolent and generous and basically good hearted? After they’ve crushed their own children under army tanks and set their flattened corpses ablaze?* After their brutal oppression of Tibet, their bullying of Taiwan, considering the propaganda and extremist jingoism they raise their “spoiled emperor” generation in?

    I love my nation, Australia. I love the USA with which we have so much in common. I love the Western culture with our values of tolerance and freedom and opportunity for everyone. I want us to have the high ground in the future. I want the Western free world to lead the way.

    Yegods how I wish I could change the world and make it better. I’d like to make a significant difference and change how things are trending. Right now I very much doubt I can. :-(

    ———————————–

    * Tianamin square 1989. Look it up. Not just the lone protester standing in front of the tank but all else that happened before. The massacre. I’ll never forget Australia’s Prime Minister at the time, Bob Hawke, crying.

  26. The Shuttle was a wonderful piece of technology, only a bit too expensive! Good-bye! … And now? What about buying some Soyuz from Russia and painting star and stripes on them? :)

  27. It occurred to me that this was the first shuttle mission since 2003 to fly without a rescue shuttle on standby. Turns out the plan in case Atlantis couldn’t de-orbit safely was to transfer the crew to the ISS and bring them down using a series of Soyuz flights. I guess that explains the reduced crew count.

  28. Anchor

    @Paul #14, I tend to agree, except for your cautionary note: “…to serve as cautionary examples of what happens when you try to force technology in directions for which it isn’t yet ready.” To be sure, there really wasn’t any extravagant forcing of the technology before its time. It was a case of CONGRESS keeping NASA on a near-starvation budget which forced the agency to come up with the cheapest means of getting the orbiter up there. So instead of the originally envisioned all-liquid-fueled system utilizing a manned fly-back booster, they came up with the then-thoroughly insane idea of strapping enormous solid rocket motors onto an external fuel tank and put the main booster engines on the orbiter itself which enormously increased its weight and complexity. (For the record, SRBs for manned flight are STILL insane, which is why Constellation was a dumb and dangerous idea from the start and nothing but another pork banquet for a certain Utah firm which loves the contracts to make them). Consequently it was an EXPERIMENTAL vehicle with unecessary complexity from the get-go that robbed the shuttle system of any chance it had to demonstrate low-cost access to orbit, fast turn-around operations, robust and reliable performance and, above all, reasonable safety.

    It is rather a cautionary example of what happens when Congress pretends to space engineering expertise it does not possess. By not properly funding that project they condemned NASA and the nation to an extravagantly expensive and dangerous vehicle for 3 decades…and they shot down every attempt to come up with a next-generation successor, again always AFTER they instructed NASA to spend billions on development.

    That’s what Congrees does well: it yanks the plug after large amounts of money are spent. Most politicians wouldn’t know how to follow through on an important investment if their lives depended on it. For all their whining over excessive government spending, it is THEY who are most responsible for throwing money out the window.

    Now they’re doing the same thing again with JWST (basically 2/3 complete) and other important projects we can’t afford NOT to follow through on after so much has already been spent and so much effort has been expended. Should anyone really be surprised that the country is in the fix its in today when Congress habitually dangles carrots and yanks them away before the horse can reach the destination Congress itself demands? What else on or off this good Earth could we possibly expect from this disgusting dysfunctional state of affairs? Technological progress driving a robust and resilient economy?

    HAH.

    I’m a little sad to see the shuttle era end too. For all its faults and finnicky fragility, it was, after all, the first winged orbiter, the pioneering machine of its kind (and I’m a sucker for nifty aerospace vehicles). But it wasn’t the machine we wanted or needed. Congress is responsible for that, not any excessively complex technology forced before its time. Yet there will be other winged orbiters and they’ll be smarter, more cost-effective and safer…and private firms will build them and won’t have to prostrate themselves before Congress every time they start whining about how expensive it is to invest in a thing properly engineered for safety, reliability and economy.

  29. Steve

    The House is not gutting NASA. They are considering some cuts in committee. The JWST is over budget. As with Constellation, it may be the right thing to do and regroup. As you’ve stated many times with the manned space program, it might be the right point to bring in a private contractor.

    When Democrats propose cuts, that is fine, but when Republicans propose cuts, it’s not??

  30. Megan

    Phil, you said,
    “As Americans we pride ourselves on our history of exploration and being the first.”

    Americans are certainly the first at claiming the credit for doing things but it’s rarely America that actually does stuff first. The shuttle, the moon landings and The Bomb are the only ones I can think of. As for exploration… Um? All those planets they visited on Star Trek don’t count. That was Starfleet.

  31. Paul

    #22: you are deluding yourself if you think there would have been a happier outcome had the shuttle had a larger development budget. The fully reusable system originally envisioned would have been even more complicated than the system we ended up with.

    Successful technologies evolve incrementally in an environment of competition between competing approaches. It would have been time for reusable launchers only if the launch market was big enough to support multiple competing systems. Otherwise, you end up with what we had: a stab in the dark that contained design mistakes that were impossible to fix. Making the system larger and more complicated would have just increased the scope for design mistakes.

  32. Gunnar Larsson

    A bit fascinating/odd that 42 years after US won the race to the moon the old Soviet moon spacecraft becomes the one to be used to take Americans and others into space.
    Anyway, I agree with what some people have said that manned space flight is not good value for money (except in rare cases, such as the work done on the Hubble telescope). Unfortunately I think we need to progress quite a lot technically (cheaper transport to space, more powerful energy “generation” etc.) before it becomes good value for money.

  33. Lukester

    Now that the shuttle program is gone, NASA should have lots of money lying around to send more rovers to Mars, right?

    Or is this not how government budgets work?

  34. Ron1

    I have to admit that I really didn’t feel at all sentimental as I watched NASA TV’s live coverage of Atlantis’ re-entry to landing. Unlike the sheer joy I felt on April, 1981 when I watched Columbia (piloted by John Young and Bob Crippen) launch, I simply felt satisfied the crew was safely home.

    My feelings, I suppose, reflect the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Whereas, prior to Challenger every shuttle launch was a joy, subsequent to Challenger I admit I experienced some anxiety for every launch and (after Columbia) landing. My feelings of simple satisfaction also reflect a child’s loss of innocence where, as a child of the 1960’s, I felt NASA was perfect and infallible. Today I know that to not be true although, in a much more complex way, I realize that NASA is very much a magnificent organization.

    As to the future of spaceflight, I hope the word’s of Richard Feynman are kept in mind, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, because Nature cannot be fooled.”

    Cheers all.

  35. Another website I can’t visit due to sense of humour short comings.

  36. PeterC

    I just had one of my 20 month old daughters sat on my lap. She saw the shuttle pic for the previous story and got excited. “Rocket! Rocket! Rocket!” she shouted. It was a sad moment, watching all that excitement and interest and knowing that it was going to be history that happened before she remembered, and therefore unimportant.

    I hope manned space flight has a new renaissance; I suspect it’ll have to wait until China has a clear lead and the West/the USA suddenly realises that all their wonderful drone-based weapons technology won’t work so well if someone else has complete control of orbit and the corresponding recon satellites.

  37. Paul

    #27: I’ll begin to worry about future Chinese manned space dominance after they reach a crewed launch rate of 1 mission per year. Although I’m not sure what manned space efforts have to do with space dominance; people in space are targets, not dominators.

  38. Russell

    My friends piled into his old car before the sun came up and drove out to the desert to see the first shuttle landing at Edwards. We froze our buns off at the edge of the dry lake bed in the cold desert morning waiting for the big event. Off the back of the 747 and zooooom down to a landing in just a few minutes. It was over before we could take it all in.

    Seems so long ago….

    It’s been quite a ride. Ok theres more coming !

  39. Daniel J. Andrews

    on the so-called “people’s” Republic of China being so benevolent and generous and basically good hearted? After they’ve crushed their own children under army tanks and set their flattened corpses ablaze?* After their brutal oppression of Tibet, their bullying of Taiwan, considering the propaganda and extremist jingoism they raise their “spoiled emperor” generation in?

    Not to pick on anyone or any country here, but we can point to almost any country (except Canada, of course ;) ) and point out how “bad” they are. For example, at this moment there could be a blogger in China talking about the US, a country that claims to be benevolent, generous, and basically good-hearted after they burnt their own children (Waco), after the brutal oppression of Iraq, their bullying of Venezuela, Cuba, considering the propaganda and extremist jingoism (Faux News & Murdoch media, Limbaugh, Beck, Tea Party, tele-evangel-ticians) they raise their “spoiled US-centric”generation in?

    Frankly, that brand of extremist religious-right that is peculiar to the southern states frightens me more than the threat (real or imagined) of Communism or Islam. Makes me want to build an impenetrable wall on our southern border to keep the crazies (tea-party, 3/4 of Republicans, any Fox person with a tv or radio show, and Jesse Ventura) out. Any readers of Discover blogs are welcome though. :)

  40. Forgive the ignorance of my questions, I know little about the field of space exploration, but I am curious:

    If this is the end of the shuttle, is it also the end of Hubble, and dare I say, also the ISS? Is there any capability now that the shuttle has been retired to spacewalk, initiate repairs and maintenance?

  41. EndeavourMisinterpreted

    If I got it right, she made the bulk of our species´ space achievements possible.

    (Kudos ^42) * e + i for that, baby girl. Sorry to lose ya, but life time well spent. I think I´m going to cry a little. A bunch actually.

  42. Chief

    re #21 Steve

    The thoughts behind this current shuttle mission in terms of the reduced crew count was that if an event occurred to force the crew to be unable to return via shuttle, the space station would serve as a lifeboat and the return home would be through the currently docked craft supplied by russia. The option to launch another russian craft was also available.

  43. Paul

    Daniel: good things to worry about! I mean, rampaging mobs of middle aged Tea Party animals and Republicans might storm north and force your government to drastically reduce its annual budget deficit.

    Oh wait, you already did that. So get down here and exploit the ever-cheapening US dollar, okay?

  44. frankenstein monster

    bye bye the last superpower. you won the cold war but lost the (relative)peace. this will be remembered as the turning point from where it went only down. let’s face the harsh reality. your country has become decadent through and through. corrupt and rotten to the core. And will collapse within next decade or little more. And the rest of the world will say good riddance (not that I myself believe that you, or somebody else deserves such a thing) … but don’t despair, after you die, Native Americans will get their country back. :P

  45. Zapnot

    Much as I admire the sheer technical achievement of the Shuttle program and the dedication and skill of those who made it possible, I can’t help seeing parallels with Concorde. Both were technical marvels that inspired a great deal of national pride, both were copied by the Soviet Union, but neither delivered on the promises of their proponents and both ultimately proved to be a dead end as a transportation system. Perhaps supersonic passenger transports and reusable winged space planes will have their day some time in the far future? I don’t know.

    I grew up during the Apollo era and I was a teenager when Young and Crippen took Colombia into orbit for the first time. Fascinated by manned space flight, I devoured all the news I could find during the early shuttle missions. Over time though, unmanned missions such as Voyagers 1 & 2, Galileo, Mars Pathfinder, Cassini and the MERs have come to mean far more to me. Yes, manned space flight is a great adventure, but the costs are high and the actual scientific benefit seems lower in proportion.

    I’d not be disappointed if there no more manned spaceflights in my lifetime, if only the funds could be devoted instead to unmanned exploration of our solar system. There are still vast amounts for us to learn about even our nearest neighbours. When I think of how much we have learned, and continue to learn, from Hubble, I’m dumbfounded by the small mindedness of those in government who are seeking to cancel the James Webb Telescope. Perhaps it is just another example of lack of the appreciation of, sometimes outright hostility to science we see in many of those in elected office.

    Ultimately I think it unlikely that NASA will be without a means to put people into orbit for long. A new space race is in the offing and national pride will eventually get the better of those who hold the purse strings. If the Shuttles have one more thing to offer in their retirement, perhaps it is to inspire a new generation of engineers and explorers.

  46. samm

    Atlantis passed over my place in NZ a couple of nights ago, and I got my two year old daughter outside to watch it, with the ISS close behind. She described the shuttle as the ‘star that was going to hit the other stars’. She might not remember this, but I remember being got out of bed to watch the landing of the first mission on live TV in 1981, and I wanted to be able to tell her when she is older that she too saw the shuttle fly once.

    On another note (something I have noticed in other night landing pics), what is the glow in the main engine bells?

  47. Grand Lunar

    This is indeed a bittersweet moment.

    I feel that I literally grew up with the shuttle program, being little over a year old when Columbia first flew.
    I never thought I’d see the end of the program.

    It’d be nice if we developed Shuttle Mark 2 as a replacement, given that it’s intent was to service a space station that was already built (AFAIK).
    I just hope the commercial providers can deliver.

  48. Daniel Boulet

    I’m a 54 year old Canadian and most definitely a “child of the space era” (I was born about eight months before Sputnik).

    Although I have no recollection of the Mercury missions, I do remember following most if not all of the Gemini missions. I definitely remember the Apollo 1 fire and closely followed the later Apollo missions. I stayed up late watching the Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon (I would have been 12 years old). Apollo 13 was quite a shock and then a relief when they made it back home.

    Moving on past the Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz, we come to the first Shuttle mission. I didn’t watch the launch although I did see the landing on TV.

    Shuttle missions soon became routine and I didn’t really follow them all that closely although the plan to launch a school teacher into space caught my attention and I watched that whole process unfold quite closely. I missed the launch and then very soon discovered to my horror that the Challenger shuttle had exploded after liftoff. There was something about the timing of the event coupled with how NASA and the media had come to treat Shuttle missions as routine that made the event feel like a necessary reminder of the risks of spaceflight.

    Once the shuttle started flying again, I found myself following the various missions more closely. I was on a commercial flight from London to North America when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry and learned about it when I overheard some comments from other passengers as I was getting off my plane (presumably, they heard about it in a phone call that they participated in while waiting to deplane). I really started to wonder if humans needed a tragedy every couple of decades to remind us that “reaching for the stars” is not without risk.

    Now we come to the end of the Shuttle era. The situation is a lot more complicated than it was when the moon landings ended although there is definitely still reason for optimism. There seems to be little doubt that the human race will continue to send people into space if for no other reason than actually “being there” is not something that a robotic spacecraft can do (this is not to disparage robotic space missions but actually having a human there to _experience_ “being there” matters a lot to me).

    While I used to dream of getting into space myself someday, that’s a dream that now belongs to my descendants. Hopefully the day will soon come when humans again dare to dream the sort of big dreams and commit themselves to the sort of effort that led humans to the moon forty years ago.

  49. Darrin

    It’s been one hell of a journey. I grew up with the Shuttle program, I was born six months before the Challenger disaster. Growing up, I watched numerous Shuttle launches on TV, though I sadly never had the chance to see it in person. I can remember where I was when the Columbia disentigrated upon re-entry.

    The shuttle is directly responsible for my interest in astronomy, actually; it launched the Hubble, and the Hubble’s amazing images made me want to know more about what’s out there. For that, I’ll forever love the Shuttle.

    In the immortal words of Anonymous: Good night, sweet prince.

  50. Darrin

    Also, @#44: Obvious troll is obvious. Try harder, thanks.

  51. NGC5335

    About Congress attempting to kill the James Webb Telescope: I have contacted my representative but am wondering what else, if anything, I should/can do about it (like an open letter or something of the sort). I didn’t even get an automated message in return from my representative, which kind of surprises me. Anyway, if someone could give me more information on this it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  52. Anchor

    @#22: “…you are deluding yourself if you think there would have been a happier outcome had the shuttle had a larger development budget.”

    How nice of you to couch it that way, “larger development budget”. But it WASN’T a “larger development budget” originally. It was JUST a budget to build the original reliable, cost-effective and safe system. It was deemed too costly, so it was REDUCED. So I’m deluded in thinking that spending a sufficient amount of money to build the right system wouldn’t have led to happier outcomes? Do you suppose underfunding makes no difference to the outcome? Who’s deluded here?

    “The fully reusable system originally envisioned would have been even more complicated than the system we ended up with.”

    You’re wrong. That’s not what most of the NASA engineers who were charged with figuring out an alternative way of getting it up there with the low funding level were themselves saying back in the early ’70s. Perhaps you think all of them were deluded and all of their initial feasibility studies were wrong too.

    You confuse “complication” with “complexity”. The fully resusable system originally envisaged might well have been more COMPLEX (after all, one needs to outfit the fly-back booster with a crew cabin and controls, etc., by system and engineering necessities that are entirely welcome), but it would certainly not have been more COMPLICATED by ridiculous measures to remain within the shoe-string development budget, COMPLICATED by trying to figure out how they could just get the orbiter into orbit.

    In other words, “complicated” = “unnecessary complexity”. Complication, unlike necessary complexity, is NEVER welcome. The STS system we got was LOADED with it. The system we ended up with was more COMPLICATED than engineering necessity called for. It was so overloaded with complication that it cost more to operate per launch than the expendable 100% liquid-fueld Saturn boosters and it destroyed 2 out of a fleet of 5 vehicles killing 14 astronauts.

    And as for extra complexity, any engineer would gladly accept it in the form of liquid-fueled engines over ‘simple’ but risky unthrottleable SRBs any day. Also, compare the original launch configuration ability to return both components safely back to runways to the hopeful return-to-launch-site fantasy contingency that the STS system relied on in the event of a launch emergency. While you compare them, remember Challenger.

    A “bigger development budget” expended on the configuration we ended up with as you imply is silly. I was talking about spending what it actually took to build the original system, the one that COULD have been more reliable, cost effective and safer. Yeah, we would have been in a far more happier place today. In the space business, one does it right or not at all. If one can’t afford to do it right, it is irresponsible and dangerous to think one can get away with doing it on the cheap and by cutting corners.

    As Ron1 points out: “As to the future of spaceflight, I hope the word’s of Richard Feynman are kept in mind, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, because Nature cannot be fooled.””

    And that’s why Constellation was broken from the beginning too.

    We can’t cheat our way into space on the cheap. Development is going to cost what it costs. With proper and sufficient funding, we CAN achieve a robustly reliable, economic, routine and safe access to space. It’s been done and amply demonstrated. But the shuttle launch system we ended up with was never anything more than a finnicky experimental contraption…BECAUSE we didn’t invest what it actually took to do it right…we have suffered the inevitable consequences and arrived at an unhappy outcome.

  53. Izzi T

    I will miss the Shuttles dearly. I’ve grown up with them.

    A lovely article, Phil, but may I point out one thing?
    Touchdown was at 10:57:54 GMT, not 09:57:54 GMT. I was watching in the UK. :)

  54. Peter Davey

    With regard to the question of “unnattainable” goals, I understand that the first (white) explorers to reach the Grand Canyon, stated, in their report of the expedition, that their’s would be probably be the only such party ever to visit such an out of the way location.

    Those who learn nothing from history….

  55. Michael

    Phil, I think you are an absolutely BRILLIANT in astrology. I love reading your blogs. However, sometimes the blatant political hatred for all things Republican just is so distasteful that it makes me unable to trust anything you say! And I say this as a Libertarian. Not that Republicans are great, or even good for that matter. It’s just become obvious that anything Obama, or any other Democrat does, is good. Everyone else is just crap.

    Obama has done no favors for the space program. Will be glad to see you acknowledge that.

  56. vince charles

    HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!

    The (independent) Augustine Comission correctly declared the Constellation Project to be repeating the same failings of the Shuttle and Station. Obama was right to draw the Comission, then heed its warning:

    http://www.nasa.gov/offices/hsf/meetings/10_22_pressconference.html

    Go ahead, read it.

  57. Anchor

    Yes, vince, I’ll join you in that hearty: HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!

    Best laugh I’ve had all week.

    Michael seems a tad dishonest in claiming to read Phil’s many blogs (plural), including Bad Astrol…oops, Astronomy. I suppose he expects people to respect his knowledgeable opinion in all other matters on the basis of this cute come-on.

  58. vince charles

    Join me in another- a libertarian is complaining about privatization. Or should I say “libertarian.”

    He expects people to respect his knowledgeable opinion on ANYTHING? HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!

  59. Nigel Depledge

    Alan(UK) (20) said:

    I am no great fan of the Shuttle or of manned spaceflight in general.

    I also am no big fan of Shuttle, but I am a fan of human spaceflight. I just wish we had the collective political will to go somewhere.

    The original idea was for a space plane that could go up and down at low cost and with enough capacity to carry big military satellites.

    The big military satellites were not part of the original design concept. The “requirement” to launch military satellites is the principal reason we ended up with the hideous compromise that was Shuttle.

    Although a lot of its components were technically reusable, it required extensive refurbishment between trips. No commercial satellites were carried after the first few launches. (Why risk the lives of 7 persons and a quarter of the fleet for a communications satellite?) Fortunately the military needs largely disappeared. Altogether, it has done far fewer trips than intended, at a much higher price.

    I agree.

    It can only reach LEO – anything going beyond that has to leave the passengers behind. Nobody went to L1 to fix SOHO. Nobody is going out to L2 to fix the JWST.

    True. Even assuming JWST ever gets launched.

    We can send unmanned spacecraft to places that man could never go – to comets, the surface of Venus, the limits of the Solar System. Telescopes can operate untended in space for years at a time. Hubble has been an enormous success but there will never be another one like it.

    Yeah, let’s hope we never launch another telescope that needs glasses! ;-)

  60. Nigel Depledge

    M.A. Green (3) said:

    I live on the east coast, and got up early this morning just to watch the landing on NASA tv. They mentioned after she landed that she’s traveled over 5 million miles.

    And in all those miles, was never more than 500 miles from the Earth’s surface.

  61. Nigel Depledge

    Josie (23) said:

    I am glad for all the science NASA is does. We worked out a lot of kinks for manned space flight and now it’s time for the businesses to take it forward. NASA gets to work out kinks for inter planetary travel.

    Actually, I think the Planetary Society has made a pretty good start on suggesting ways to solve those problems.

  62. Nigel Depledge

    @ MTU (25) –
    Tienamen Square was 22 years ago. China is changing (although, I agree with you about Tibet and Taiwan).

  63. Nigel Depledge

    Anchor (28) said:

    . . . it was an EXPERIMENTAL vehicle with unecessary complexity from the get-go that robbed the shuttle system of any chance it had to demonstrate low-cost access to orbit, fast turn-around operations, robust and reliable performance and, above all, reasonable safety.

    And if it had not been required to launch big, heavy military satellites, it could have been a far smaller and lighter vehicle with no need for strap-on boosters at all.

  64. Nigel Depledge

    Steve (29) said:

    The House is not gutting NASA. They are considering some cuts in committee.

    Erm … IIUC these are the biggest cuts since 1968.

    The JWST is over budget.

    So what? This might just mean that the original budget was wrong. The key consideration is what will it cost from here, and is it worth it?

  65. Nigel Depledge

    PeterC (36) said:

    I hope manned space flight has a new renaissance; I suspect it’ll have to wait until China has a clear lead and the West/the USA suddenly realises that all their wonderful drone-based weapons technology won’t work so well if someone else has complete control of orbit and the corresponding recon satellites.

    Yeah! ‘Cos then we might have to resort to diplomacy! ;-)

  66. Nigel Depledge

    Simon (40) said:

    If this is the end of the shuttle, is it also the end of Hubble, and dare I say, also the ISS?

    It’s not the end of Hubble per se, but there will be no more servicing missions or upgrades to Hubble. Once Hubble’s present systems fail, that will be it.

    As for the ISS, though, the clue is in the first word of its name. Other nations have manned spaceflight and will continue to visit and supply the ISS. (Well, OK, mainly Russia in this case, but there you go).

  67. Hay ho the witch is dead. And it’s about damn time.

    The shuttle is a big impressive machine, but it’s also a horribly compromised deathtrap that has stood in the way of spaceflight for three long decades. SpaceX is within a whisker of proving you can develop a cheap safe man rated HLLV for less than one year of NASA’s manned spaceflight budget. Something NASA has denied for as long as possible to protect its budget and monopoly.

    For three long decades (I’m repeating this because some people have trouble remembering) shuttle based missions and infrastructure has consumed TWICE the budget of everything else NASA has done, including science – which in turn has provided the lion’s share of NASA’s good publicity and the contents of this particular blog.

    Think how much could have been done if NASA had build something like the Falcon Heavy, or any of the alternative comercial options suggested during Phase A of the shuttle development concept that would have been cheaper than NASA’s own in house monstrosity.
    history.nasa.gov/SP-4221/sp4221.htm
    And that’s before we get to the parts about launching hopelessly out of date satellite designs and the 1,000 mile cross range requirement so the USAF could poke at equally out of date Russian satellites…

    Thank dog it’s gone. I hope the SLS is aborted and the whole legacy LC-39 complex finally get it’s well deserved national park and world heritage site status. Maybe then the NASA manned space programme could move on and do something useful – which is to say step aside and let someone else do the job they’ve repeatedly proven they’re not capable of.

  68. Nigel Depledge

    Zapnot (45) said:

    Much as I admire the sheer technical achievement of the Shuttle program and the dedication and skill of those who made it possible, I can’t help seeing parallels with Concorde. Both were technical marvels that inspired a great deal of national pride, both were copied by the Soviet Union, but neither delivered on the promises of their proponents and both ultimately proved to be a dead end as a transportation system. Perhaps supersonic passenger transports and reusable winged space planes will have their day some time in the far future? I don’t know.

    There are some key differences between Shuttle and Concorde, though:

    Concorde achieved what it set out to achieve. Its use was not widespread because the USAians (the main target market) refused to let it fly supersonically in their airspace. Also, Concorde’s range was too limited so it could not access the Far East and Australia without several refuelling stops. (But in 1959 – 1960, when the early development work was being done on Concorde, no passenger aircraft had a particularly large range).

    Although Air France only ever ran Concorde at a loss, British Airways did turn a profit from their Concorde flights (mainly by making the whole thing an exclusive experience and charging an arm and a leg for the tickets).

  69. Nigel Depledge

    ANTIcarrot (68) said:

    The shuttle is a big impressive machine, but it’s also a horribly compromised deathtrap that has stood in the way of spaceflight for three long decades. SpaceX is within a whisker of proving you can develop a cheap safe man rated HLLV for less than one year of NASA’s manned spaceflight budget. Something NASA has denied for as long as possible to protect its budget and monopoly.

    To be fair, it’ll be some time yet before SpaceX has a manned vehicle with anything like Shuttle’s payload capacity.

  70. Nigel Depledge

    Anchor (53) said:

    And as for extra complexity, any engineer would gladly accept it in the form of liquid-fueled engines over ‘simple’ but risky unthrottleable SRBs any day.

    Risky and unthrottleable and manufactured so far from Cape Kennedy that they had to be built in pieces to make shipping them there feasible. And coincidentally to necessitate having joints that had to be sealed with O-rings.

  71. Nigel Depledge

    Izzi T (54) said:

    Touchdown was at 10:57:54 GMT, not 09:57:54 GMT. I was watching in the UK

    Yeah, where local time is currently BST (i.e. GMT + 1:00). So was touchdown at 11:57 UK time?

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