Shuttle Atlantis A Turning Point Into The Unknown

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, July 8, 2011. The STS-135 mission, the final shuttle flight, will bring supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: AP Photo/John Raoux

Four astronauts with a lot on their minds sped skyward into Earth orbit aboard the shuttle Atlantis this morning. The weather was tranquil as Atlantis left the launch pad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 10:26 a.m. CDT this morning on the final flight of the space shuttle program. The 12-day mission will bring 9,500 lbs. of food, supplies, spare parts and science experiments to the International Space Station. The landing date, July 20, is the same as when the first astronauts set foot on the moon 42 years ago.

I’ve been following the space shuttle program since its beginning 30 years ago. I remember getting together with my newspaper colleagues to watch the first liftoff of Columbia in April 1981. I felt so proud of our country’s accomplishment. What an idea – send a whole “airplane” into space and then return it to use again and again.

The space shuttle Discovery and International Space Station chase each other through the Summer Triangle a couple years ago. Photo: Bob King

Like you, I’ve enjoyed watching the shuttle and space station circling around the sky together as they rendezvous and dock and then separate to return astronauts to Earth. Even as an observer, I felt involved in the space program. When Atlantis lands and the crew have to tear themselves out of the craft for the last time, I’ll understand their sadness.

The shuttles and the astronauts who flew them launched observatories and satellites, learned to live in space for long periods of time, performed innumerable experiments, repaired and upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope and built the space station. The space station will still be there — that’s a great thing — but the U.S. will now have to depend on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to come and go from the station at a cost of $60 million per seat. It’s hoped that private industry in our country will build a re-usable vehicle with capabilities like the shuttles, but that’s years off. To read more about the history of the shuttle program and the future of U.S. manned space flight, check out this CNET article or this story from the New York Times.

Space shuttles are often launched during opportune times when observers across the U.S. can watch them cross the sky at night en route to the space station. Unfortunately not this time. The station is currently making daytime passes only across most of the country. The next opportunity to see it and possibly Atlantis will be at dawn around July 20, the day the shuttle is expected to land. Meanwhile, if you want to see a shuttle up close, they’ll be set up as exhibits at the following institutions:

* Discovery will go to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center just outside Washington, D.C.
* Enterprise to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York.
* Endeavour retires to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
* Atlantis will go to the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando

Vesta seen by the Dawn probe on July 1 from a distance of 62,000 miles. A large, raised mound is visible at bottom. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

On the bright side, NASA continues to forge ahead with a healthy program of unmanned space probes on numerous missions to planets, comets and asteroids. Think of the Mars Rovers, the Cassini Mission at Saturn, a new Jupiter probe called Juno set to launch next month and of course Dawn’s trek to Vesta, one of the largest asteroids. Dawn’s most recent photo shows a most interesting big “bump” on Vesta’s surface in addition to craters and assorted smaller hills. In little more than a week, Dawn will be orbiting around the asteroid. Man, I can’t wait for those photos.

These false-color images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft chronicle a day in the life of a huge storm that developed from a small spot last December. The highest clouds, which are colored blue, are about 60 miles above Saturn's undisturbed cloud deck. Lower clouds are red and brown. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Meanwhile the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn has returned more pictures of the giant, planet-girdling storm that began in the planet’s northern latitudes last December. It’s the largest, most intense storm ever observed by either Voyager and Cassini spacecraft and spans some 186,000 miles. The storm clouds are likely water ice covered in crystallized ammonia.

Powerful bolts of lightning are generated at the base of the storm — Cassini recorded more than 10 lightning flashes per second during peak intensity. The bolts create a static discharge similar to the crackle you hear on the radio during a terrestrial storm. Click HERE to listen to what Cassini heard.

“This storm is thrilling because it shows how shifting seasons and solar illumination can dramatically stir up the weather on Saturn,” said Georg Fischer, lead author on a paper recently published on Saturn’s weather and a radio and plasma wave science team member at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz.