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Space Shuttle Atlantis Closes In on Historic Final Landing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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STS-132 landingWhen space shuttle Atlantis rolls to a stop at the end of its current mission, the only remaining U.S. spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to orbit will be powered down for good. NASA’s fleet of space shuttles, developed in the 1970s and first launched in 1981, have provided the nation with 30 years of almost uninterrupted access to space. But one by one, NASA has phased out its three remaining orbiters. The landing of Atlantis, set for 5:56 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time on July 21, will bring the end of the shuttle program.

The final mission, which began with a timely liftoff July 8, was a supply run to the International Space Station (ISS). Having made its deliveries, Atlantis undocked from the ISS on July 19 and began its journey back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission, officially designated STS-135, is the 33rd mission for the Atlantis orbiter and the 135th shuttle mission overall. The STS-135 crew are commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

If Atlantis is unable to make an approach to Kennedy due to weather in its first landing opportunity, it will have another chance at 7:32 A.M. Failing that, the orbiter will have landing slots available on July 22 at both Kennedy and the backup shuttle landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Once the shuttle does return to Earth, the vehicle will be decommissioned and prepared for permanent display at Kennedy. NASA chose Atlantis, which has been in service since 1985, as the orbiter that will remain at Cape Canaveral; the other shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, and a test vehicle, Enterprise, will head to museums in the Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York City areas, respectively.

Photo of Atlantis landing in 2010: NASA

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  1. 1. marperl 5:42 pm 07/20/2011

    Space Needle Retired

    –Seattle — The iconic 605-foot-high Space Needle is being retired from service. "Launched" in 1962 as a symbol of America’s space ambitions, the George Jetsonesque tower will be consigned to a new role more reflective of the country’s current mood and desires. The change occurs on the very week the Shuttle program sputters to a stop, and, according to many former astronauts, as the U.S. makes a u-turn from its very being and destiny.

    The whimsy continues at Thinking Out Loud,

    Link to this
  2. 2. jason hunter 8:29 pm 07/20/2011

    Jellyroll, i think you underestimate the value of the waving astronaut. i want to be that guy. i fuels my interest in, and by proxy, my engagement with the act of scientific exploration in a way that a bunch of nerds around a computer cheering the one and zeroes of their latest data transmission just can’t quite muster. Public interest in science ultimately brings funding to science. Don’t forget that humans have an irrational side that needs to be tended as well.

    Link to this
  3. 3. geojellyroll 8:59 pm 07/20/2011

    Jason…stop living in Disneyland.

    The Shuttle has been as inspiring to the youth of America as reruns of the Lawrence Welk show.

    Link to this

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