Atlantis blasts off on 8th July
So, the final space shuttle launch took place a couple of days ago and after this 12 day mission to replenish the ISS Atlantis will join its sisters in a museum next year. Atlantis will be the most spectacular Shuttle exhibit of the three; suspended in a special building at the Kennedy Space Centre against a rotating backdrop of the earth from space.
Atlantis was the second to last Shuttle built and its current and final mission STS 135 will be its 33rd space flight. Its first flight was in October 1985 but was shrouded in secrecy as it was a Department of Defence mission. Since then it has had the reputation of being the international launcher. The first Mexican, Swiss, Belgian and Italian in space all flew on Atlantis. The current crew is only four to allow rescue by a Soyuz if there are any problems. The Russian spacecraft, which is now the only way to reach the International Space Station, couldn't handle a bigger crew in a rescue mission.
This then, was the final launch of the Space Shuttle after 134 successful launches since its first flight in April 1981. Although it never achieved the original target of fifty launches a year (the two disasters befalling Challenger and Columbia led to two periods totalling five years without a flight) it generally performed well and could likely have continued operating for another decade, without budget cuts.
Atlantis and its flights
The retirement of the Shuttle is a sad day for the conquest of space as its a step back to the technology of thirty years ago and non-reusable rockets. Russian rockets, initially, and then possible Ares (if the Americans can find the money) or a private sector solution to service the ISS. We have lost our only real spaceship. Its rather like developing diesel powered high speed railway engines and going back to steam...