Atlantis lands to mark end of shuttle program
Published Thursday, July 21, 2011 10:59AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 5:26AM EDT
Two thousand people gathered to watch the landing of the space shuttle Atlantis on Thursday morning, a historic event that marks the end of an era in American space travel.
When Atlantis touched down safely just before 6 a.m. ET, the shuttle's commander paid tribute to the long-running space shuttle program that began three decades ago.
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop," commander Christopher Ferguson radioed upon landing.
"Job well done, America," Mission Control replied.
The final leg of Atlantis' long journey brought four astronauts back to U.S. soil on Thursday: Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, as well as astronauts Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus.
Ferguson said the final shuttle flight would not be the end of America's quest to venture further beyond the Earth's boundaries.
"There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing's indisputable. America's not going to stop exploring," Ferguson said.
"Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end."
The 2,000 spectators that gathered near the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center were a record crowd for a shuttle landing.
CNN reporter Jim Spellman said that it seemed like most Americans had taken the shuttle program for granted in recent years, as if the marvel of spaceflight had become less spectacular with time.
"These things have become so routine that rarely do we pause to really, I think appreciate it," Spellman told CTV News Channel about four hours after Atlantis touched down for the last time.
Next stop for Atlantis? A museum
Atlantis was one of three shuttles to survive to retirement, along with Discovery and Endeavour, which already had their final flights earlier this year. After decommissioning, the surviving shuttles will be sent to U.S. museums where the public can enjoy them in the years to come.
Two other shuttles were destroyed in tragic incidents that also claimed several lives. Seven people died when Challenger blew up after liftoff in January 1986, while seven others perished when Columbia disintegrated during reentry to the Earth's atmosphere in February 2003.
Overall, the shuttle program saw its spacecraft spend a total of about 36 months in space, or 1,333 days to be exact. The fleet flew a combined 872.22 million kilometres and circled the Earth more than 21,150 times during their 30 years of orbiting missions.
The shuttles brought more than 300 people into space, including a handful of Canadians.
Marc Garneau, now a Liberal parliamentarian, was the first Canadian to take a ride on the shuttle, as well as the first Canuck to go into space.
Randy Attwood, the managing editor of Space Quarterly, told CTV's Canada AM on Thursday that he vividly remembers the day Garneau first went to space.
"It was such an exciting thing for Canadians and certainly something to inspire our young people to get into science and technology. And that's what space exploration does," Attwood said.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Thursday that the shuttle program had helped "set us up for exploration of the future."
But Bolden, a former shuttle commander himself, said he wanted to keep the focus on Atlantis and its crew in the hours following its final landing.
"I just want to salute this crew, welcome them home," Bolden said.
An uncertain future for NASA and its staff
The end of the shuttle program also means the loss of thousands of jobs for people who have devoted years of their lives to the scores of NASA launchings and landings since 1981.
"Twenty-three hundred people here are going to lose their jobs tomorrow. Ultimately about 8,000 people here at Kennedy Space Center are losing their jobs because of the end of the space shuttle program," Spellman told CTV News Channel.
"And with such an uncertain future, a lot of people just don't know what to make of it."
The United States spent $196 billion on its shuttles over a 40-year period, more than twice what NASA had originally anticipated.
As NASA now enters the post-shuttle era, it is not clear when its next spacecraft will take flight.
Private companies are set to take on the challenge of bringing Americans and cargo to the International Space Station in the immediate future, with the first such cargo run expected to take place later this year.
For now, Russia will solely handle the transportation of astronauts to and from the space station, a responsibility they have handled alongside the U.S. shuttles for some time.
In the long-term, NASA is focused on designing new types of rockets that will take tomorrow's astronauts to near asteroids, and hopefully one day to Mars.
Pierre Jean of the Canadian Space Agency said the desired future journey to Mars is fraught with challenges that stem from a voyage that would be several months long.
"There's so many hurdles that need to be worked through both from a life science perspective and a technical perspective," Jean told CTV News Channel on Thursday morning.
With files from The Associated Press