Monday, 4 July 2011

Dollars for Russia

The UK was just finishing a glorious Easter weekend and entering the final run-up to Royal wedding madness when I started this blog on 26 April en route to witness the penultimate launch of the US Space Shuttle.

Now, a couple of months or so on and with Endeavour’s spectacular mission done and dusted, we are entering the final countdown for the very last Shuttle launch.

This time it is the turn of the United States to kickoff countdown week with today’s 4th July public holiday to celebrate Independence Day.

Though the four-strong crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis arrived at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) this afternoon the day was, for the vast majority of NASA employees working on the mission, the end of a welcome long weekend before mission control gets down to serious business.



Just as the technicians, engineers, mission planners and pad workers arrive at their stations to start the clock on Tuesday lunchtime, I hope to be well on my way across the Atlantic courtesy of a Virgin flight.

In principle I will be catching up with some work on the laptop - in practice my battery may be dead and so I may just be catching one of the latest film releases on the in-flight entertainment system.

The atmosphere at KSC this week will be one of high drama and excitement, tinged with sadness and probably some unbelief to those more closely involved than I that this will be the last opportunity to work on or witness a Space Shuttle launch.

I will be meeting up with many old friends on the Shuttle media circuit at KSC. Some of them, like Gerard van de Haar and Rudolf van Beest from the Netherlands, are veterans of many more ‘live’ Shuttle launches than myself.

Spaceflight’s Ken Kremer, from New Jersey, will be there too, along with many other regulars and, of course, the great US TV media, rolling into town like a posse of modern-day cowboys on their giant satellite wagons.

But there is also a touch of irony to this whole affair. Barely a week after American’s toast Independence Day with patriotic pride, the country’s human space programme will slip into a new phase that will be far from independent.

Political shenanigans in the last two US administrations have left a gaping hole in the country’s space infrastructure. It means that after the final flight of the Space Shuttle the US will loose its only means of launching its own citizens into space.
 

This time it is the Russians who have come to the rescue, offering NASA a rather neat ‘pay as you go’ commercial service for at least the next three years, and probably longer.

So there you have it. America is about to pay Russia around 60 million bucks a throw to blast its astronauts into space on a rocket that has changed little since the days of Yuri Gagarin.

But first we have a final Shuttle mission to enjoy!
 

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