The time has finally arrived, 30 years after the space shuttle Columbia blasted off into space her sister ship Atlantis roared into orbit just 2 days ago. It is estimated that near 1 million people flocked to the areas surrounding the Kennedy Space Center to watch the final ever launch with millions more tuning in from around the world to witness it online. I have to be honest and say that I missed the live event myself, blame goes to the sources that cited a 70% chance for no-go weather on the day, but I quickly caught up with the events spending hours pouring over the details of the last ever space shuttle mission over my morning coffee the day after.
STS-135 is a very unique mission in many ways. It began as STS-335 a Launch on Need mission designed to be launched if STS-134 had any problems on orbit and was unable to return to earth safely. For such missions a fully stacked orbiter has to be ready to launch within a very short time frame, usually on the order of a couple months. This means the usual shuttle preparations have to already be done in order to launch that quickly and with the shuttle program retiring that meant there would be one fully loaded orbiter that would essentially go to waste. Last year saw the proposal to turn STS-335 into STS-135 approved although without any specific funding for the additional mission. NASA announced in February that the mission would go ahead with funding approval or not, setting the stage for STS-135 to be the last shuttle mission in history.
The final mission of the space shuttle also shares the record of taking up the smallest crew with one of Challenger’s early missions STS-6, bringing only 4 astronauts into space. The reason for this is simple, since there are no other shuttles available to act as rescue boats should Atlantis not be able to return from orbit those stranded astronauts will have to come back down in the regular Soyuz missions. Whilst the International Space Station is quite capable of handling the extra load for a while it will still take almost a year just to ferry those 4 astronauts back down and many of the ISS contingency plans are based around having no more than 6 astronauts on the station at any one time (without additional craft docked). STS-135 then only brings the bare minimum crew required to complete the mission and all signs are pointing to them being able to return safely so far.
The payload of this mission is focused solely on keeping the ISS functioning for the rest of its intended lifetime, another 9 years or so. Atlantis carries in its payload bay one multi-purpose logistics module (named Raffaello) load with 16 resupply racks, the maximum it can carry, with an additional lightweight multi-purpose carrier that will be used to return some failed components back to earth for analysis. The failed components in question are a pump module for the external thermal cooling system and a ammonia pump module, both of which have already been replaced in orbit. STS-135 also carriers with an additional piece of equipment for the ISS, a proof of concept device for on-orbit refueling of satellites. For the demonstration it will be attached to the Dextre robot and should it prove successful the technology could make its way into the commercial sector. There will also be 2 iPhone 4s and 2 Nexus S’s carried up to be used with the ISS’s SPHEREs, basically small satellites that reside inside the space station.
It’s a historic time as this mission marks the beginning of the end to a 30 year endeavor that NASA has undertaken. It might not be the most glamorous end to the program, being basically a supply mission to keep the ISS going, but it’s an important one none the less ensuring that the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the availability of other craft doesn’t impact on NASA’s goals in space. For youngsters like me it marks the end of the iconic craft that we grew up with and I know its going to be a long time before another one will be able to take its place. For that simple fact the shuttle will always have a special place in my heart, just like I know it does in so many others.
Late last night space shuttle Atlantis streaked across the night sky in a brilliant blaze of firey glory on its way back down to earth. After writing about the mission just over a week ago I’d been dreading this moment for quite some time as it meant that it would be the first shuttle to enter official retirement. Still we can’t dwell on the negatives for too long as space shuttle Atlantis has served humanity well running 32 missions, travelling over 180 million kilometers and spending a total of 282 days in space. So what else is there to say about the first of our iconic spacecraft to hit retirement? Well there is the fact that it might not be its last flight at all.
Readers of this blog will more than likely remember me detailing some of the standard operating procedures of a shuttle flight. One of those is that should the shuttle sustain enough damage to make returning to earth too risky they must have somewhere to stay whilst a rescue mission is planned. Traditionally they can take refuge as the ISS as it is more than capable of handling the extra load for a month or so whilst they roll out another shuttle. Now this doesn’t mean that NASA can just whip up an entire shuttle mission within a month, far from it. In fact all rescue missions are planned well in advance with many of the critical components ready to go, including things like the external fuel tank and SRBs. For our soon to be retired friend Atlantis this means that whilst it’s completed its final official mission, its job is far from over.
STS-134 is the last planned flight for any space shuttle and that means should Endeavour not be able to return to earth the astronauts will be trapped at the ISS. Whilst we could ferry them down in Soyuz craft it would take an extremely long time and would tax the resources of both Russia and the USA considerably. As such they’ve designated a special Launch on Need (LON) mission called STS-335 that will be launched to rescue them should Endeavour be stranded in space. This mission has Atlantis as the designated craft for the mission and this has lead to an interesting proposition:
“We need to go through the normal de-servicing steps, obviously, after the orbiter comes home…We have to prepare Atlantis and the stack as if we’re going to fly again because it is (launch-on-need) mission,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.
“We’ll be processing her as if it’s a real flight to begin with. Somewhere along the line we expect to hear whether we’re going to launch or not, and at that point in time either press on or stop that processing. But in order to support that, obviously, we have press on when she gets home.”
But with long odds that a rescue would really be required, there’s a notion to fly Atlantis crewed by just four astronauts on a regular mission and a large logistics module to service the International Space Station with supplies and more science equipment.
Designing such a mission, getting the cargo pulled together and training a crew would take many months, so the clock is ticking for a “go” or “no go” decision.
In essence we’d have a shuttle that was fully flight ready, all it would be missing is a payload. The crew would intentionally be kept small in order to ensure that in the event of an emergency they could all return aboard the attached Soyuz craft, which would also limit what kind of payload you could send up there. Still having a shuttle tricked out and ready to fly is not something you’ll have the opportunity to do again and this is what has got tongues wagging about whether or not NASA should in fact fly Atlantis one last time.
There’s no denying that any flight into space has an enormous amount of value. Whilst every precaution is taken to ensure that the ISS has everything it needs there’s no harm in bringing up extras for it. Even with the reduced crew there’s still the opportunity to fly up some additional hardware like some of cancelled ISS modules (a few of which were partially built). Still if such a mission were to go it would more than likely be a strict logistics mission as anything else would require extensive amounts of planning, something that I’m not quite sure congress would be willing to approve (flying Atlantis just for logistics would be costly enough).
So whilst the great Atlantis might have been the first to return to earth on its final official flight there’s still a chance that we’ll see this bird fly once again. I might lament the fact if it does ever fly (making my trip to the US to see the last shuttle flight moot) it would still make my heart soar to see it lifting into the sky one more time. Such is the awesome beauty that is the space shuttle.