Wednesday, 1 June 2011

And then there was one...

The Space Shuttle Endeavour slipped back to Earth this morning under cover of darkness. And just as it made a perfect touchdown at Kennedy Space Center, its elder sister Atlantis was arriving at launch pad 39A a few miles away.

Endeavour has now safely completed her spaceflight career that covered 25 voyages to Earth orbit over 19 years, spanning 122,883,151 miles travelled, 4,677 revolutions of the planet and 299 days aloft.

In reality, STS-134 was the final mission to the International Space Station of any real substance. Barring emergencies on this summer’s Atlantis flight there will be no more spacewalks by Shuttle astronauts or major payloads carried into orbit.


The eerie night-time landing of NASA’s youngest orbiter brought out the emotions even more than Discovery’s final flight a few months earlier.

Now the reality hits home - there is just one more flight ever in the 30 year history of the Space Shuttle programme.

A few hours before a sonic boom heralded Endeavour’s arrival in the dark skies above KSC, the Space Shuttle Atlantis emerged from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to a cheering crowd and a barrage of camera flashes for its final journey to a launch pad.

The Florida sun was setting and this was the last time any Shuttle was scheduled to make the slow 3.5 mile trek from the VAB in preparation for its currently planned launch on 8 July.


Patriotic music blared from speakers as powerful xenon floodlights ushered the vehicle through the crowd, which was estimated to be as large as 8,400. Among those in attendance were the four astronauts who will make up the final Shuttle crew.

Workers and their guests were also invited to witness the historic rollout as part of a NASA morale programme to thank employees for their years of service before many of them loose their jobs.

"In my opinion this is the most graceful, beautiful vehicle we've had to fly in space ever," said astronaut Rex Walheim. "It's going to be a long time until you see a vehicle roll to the pad that looks as beautiful as that. How can you beat that - an airplane sitting on the side of a rocket? It's absolutely stunning."

As America looks to more commercial solutions for launching its citizens into space in the future it seems certain that something of the romance of space travel will be lost along with the retirement of the Space Shuttle.

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