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 Peter Takes on History 

July 21, 2011

The Last Mission

When Apollo 17 returned to earth in December 1972, marking the end of our manned missions to the moon, NASA was already one year into its next big project.
Richard Nixon had taken advantage of the public’s Dilithium fueled enthusiasm for the Final Frontier and Washington’s willingness to fund big ideas and announced that NASA would develop a system to shuttle astronauts into space in a reusable craft, substantially reducing both the cost and increasing the frequency of launches.
In April of 1981 it was “all systems go” for STS-1;the launch of Space Shuttle Columbia. Two astronauts lifted off like a rocket, dropped their external fuel tanks, orbited the planet 37 times in 54 hours and returned to earth, landing like a plane at Edwards Air Force base in California.
Over the next four years the rest of the Shuttle Fleet - Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour- were all delivered to Cape Kennedy and, in that order, added to the Shuttle rotation.
We certainly put our miles on the fleet. For example, during its 26 years in service, Atlantis flew almost 126 million miles, circled Earth 4,848 times and spent 307 days in space. The estimated price tag for the entire space shuttle program, from development to retirement, was $209 billion.
Now, any history of the Space Shuttle program must include the tragedies of the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the disintegration of Columbia on re-entry in 2003.
If you’re old enough, you probably remember where you were when Christa McAuliff, who would have been the first teacher in space, and the rest of the Challenger crew lost their lives. I was a news photographer based in Tampa back then. I shot the launches of STS 3 through STS 9 but skipped STS 10, the Challenger launch. I knew the contrail was visible across the state so Ruthy and I stood in our driveway to watch. We quickly realized something had gone terribly wrong.
But it’s not fair to the astronauts who lost their lives and the legacy of the Shuttle Program as a whole if I don’t point out its many wins. More than 800 crew members flew more than 500 million miles in space and returned safely to earth. The 135 space shuttle missions lifted more than 3 million pounds of cargo into space including the Hubble Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the interplanetary probes Magellan, Ulysses, and Galileo and almost all of the International Space Station.
The Shuttle Discovery also took Mercury Astronaut and US Senator John Glenn back to space 36 years after his first mission in 1962. At 77 Glenn was the oldest person to reach space until yesterday when Ms. Wally Funk, age 82, who once trained to be a Mercury astronaut, joined Jeff Bezos in his Blue Origin space capsule and skittered along the edge of space.
The US Space Shuttle program ended on this day in history, July 21, 2011 when the Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center.
STS 135 commander, Capt. Chris Ferguson radioed in, “Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.”
It was the end of the mission and the end of an era, but the space shuttle illustrated what an age of routine travel could look like. It was a promise that someday we would conquer that final frontier.

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