Just watched the launch of STS135; the lift-off of shuttle Atlantis on the last space shuttle mission. Two weeks from now, Atlantis will touch down one last time and bring an end to 30 years of Space Shuttle Flights. An end of an era.
I must have watched dozens of shuttle launches live on TV, but regret not having had the opportunity of watching one in-person, in Florida. All of them were great to watch (especially the ones I saw on NASA TV). The complexity of the machine, the mission control center interactions, the sheer magnitude of engine power, the grandeur of lift-off… fascinating!
Overall, the shuttle program has been quite successful, apart from the two tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Most of the other missions went through without any major issues – to the point that these missions were felt as really ‘routine’.
Like was the case with the Apollo Program nearly 40 years back, budget cuts have played their part in ending the shuttle program. The debate between cost-benefits of manned space flights will continue. Travelling to Mars is a possible long-term goal, but definitely not in the near future. In the medium term, some alternatives have been proposed, which aim to address some of the limitations of the space shuttle. Still, no firm plan exists today.
Leaves me wondering when the United States / NASA will return back to manned spaceflights. For now, the International Space Station will be served by Russian spacecrafts. Feels a bit odd that half a century since John Glenn’s historic flight – the United States doesn’t have a firm manned spaceflight roadmap. At least they should have planned for a few more shuttle launches, until the medium strategy was ready and set for deployment!
–Note added July 22, 2011 — STS-135 completed its mission yesterday and the space shuttle landed for the last time. Here’s a great video tribute to the space shuttle program, compiled by Nature that showcases all the missions over the past 30 years: http://youtu.be/II7QBLt36xo