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Sunday, 24 July 2011

Space Shuttle Retirements: The End of an Era

The last of NASA's space shuttles, Atlantis, has gone into retirement. The shuttle touched down on July 21st at the Kennedy Space Centre, delivering its four crew members safely back to Earth.

The space shuttle program has faithfully delivered astronauts, supplies and maintenance to the International Space Station since 1981. The space shuttle Discovery launched the Hubble Space Telescope and the shuttles have since made several missions to repair and install new instruments in the telescope.

The fleet of shuttles that operated in the program – Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour – were revolutionary in that they were reusable. Earlier spacecraft such as Apollo, which carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon in 1969, returned to Earth by splashing down in the ocean, but the winged space shuttles could glide majestically down to land on a runway.

Atlantis lands for the final time.  Source: NASA

The decision to retire the fleet of shuttles was made in 2004, following the deaths of the crew on board the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on re-entry into the atmosphere. A previous accident, in which the Challenger shuttle broke apart just 73 seconds after take-off in 1986, had already claimed the lives of 7 NASA astronauts.

The average cost of launching a space shuttle into orbit is around $450 million. In 2005, NASA spent almost 30% of its total budget on the space shuttle program. The decision to close down the program will mean job losses for around 3,000 NASA employees.

Until plans for a replacement for the space shuttle program are drawn up, astronauts will be transported to and from the International Space Station by Russian spacecraft. There are reports that a private company - either Orbital Sciences, Lockheed Martin or Boeing - will step in to fill the gap of providing a reusable spacecraft to replace the retired shuttles.

For more information, don't miss this program airing tonight at 9 pm on BBC2.

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