Two more launches and the Space Shuttle programme with its clunky space gliders is finished.
The shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time on May 26, gliding down for a perfect landing at Kennedy Space Centre. Since her first flight in 1985, Atlantis has launched in furious smoke and thunder 32 times and logged 120 650 907 miles. Try get sort of mileage on your Toyota.
In September, Discovery will set off for the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time while Endeavour will make the final launch into space in November.
After that, astronauts will be riding to the ISS on Russian Soyuz rockets until such time as the private sector takes on the heavy financial burden of space exploration. The shuttle programme costs NASA $200 million a month to run – so whoever takes over better have pockets as deep as space itself.
That leaves the Russians flying the flag for manned space flight, until such time, that is, as India or China start firing humans at the outer limits. It’s all very poignant, marking as it does, the end of a era which began with wild hopes as Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel in space and ending with the Americans firing empty rockets at the moon to sse if there is any water there.
If you like this kind of thing, you’ll love In The Shadow of the Moon, a lovely film which splices scenes from the Apollo moon shots together with interviews with eight of the 24 men who flew to, and walked on, the moon. It’s a beautiful film, made rich by interviews with a humble bunch of astronauts. It’s worth seeing the film just for Michael Collins, pilot of the command module on the Apollo 11 mission. His humour is dry and his eyes light up with boyish glee as he talks about an adventure that took place 37 years before.
“It’s not a question of, you’re scared all the time, but it is — you’re mildly worried all the time, or at least I was,” he says at one point. “You know, you’re not sure all these things are going to work properly!” And his eyes grow wide and he smiles like a naughty kid.
You should see it. Here’s a better review than mine if you need more convincing.
The Apollo astronauts were last to ride that greatest of rockets, the Saturn V – a fabulous and and outrageous symbol of America’s dominance in space. Then came the boxy shuttles came and somehow the world got bored with the whole thing.
Ah well, we’ll miss them when they’re gone.
The pictures at top – currently doing the rounds of the Web – show Discovery, bolted atop its Boeing 747 transporter, coming in to land at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. At the bottom, a NASA photo shows a Saturn V blasting off on one of the Apollo missions. What splendid fury!