Swansong of Atlantis

AS YOU read, Space Shuttle Atlantis stands on Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre, its black nose pointed towards the heavens, one last mission beckoning.

Its launch, scheduled for 11.26AM EDT next Friday, kicks off the 135th and final flight of NASA’s space shuttle programme.

“We are just trying to savour the moment,” said STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson, arriving for pre-flight checks at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. “As our children and our children’s children ask us, we want to be able to say: ‘We remember when there was a space shuttle.’”

Commander Ferguson and his crew, Doug Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, are embarking on a 12-day mission that involves, amongst other tasks, delivering 8,000lbs of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Omega, the last letter in the Greek alphabet, cradles an image of the shuttle on their mission badges. Atlantis will depart a spacecraft, and return a museum piece.

“I’ve seen the shuttle about a half-dozen times in Irish skies,” says David Moore of Astronomy Ireland. “I’ve seen it chasing the Space Station, and I’ve seen it once about 20 minutes after it left Florida, with the big external fuel tank trailing behind it. Now the Station is complete, you can understand why NASA is mothballing it. But it will be sad to see it go.”

The shuttles are being retired because they have 537 million miles on the clock, the ISS has been completed, and NASA aspires to fly deeper into space. But they also proved costlier and more complicated than expected to run. President Bush announced the cancellation in 2004.

“I feel a bit nostalgic about it, and I suppose a bit sad,” says Ann Fitzpatrick of ESERO, the European Space Education Resource Office in Ireland. “But in another way it’s exciting, in that it’s going to push people like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to look at alternatives.”

ESERO promotes space as a way of engaging young people in science, technology, maths and engineering, and Fitzpatrick is acutely aware of how a star craft like the shuttle, or the technological wizardry of the International Space Station, could inspire the scientists of the future.

“An image that really struck me was a photograph taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli of the shuttle connecting to the space station. It’s an amazing visual. It gives you an idea of the size of the space station, but also it looks like an airplane stuck onto this thing floating around in space.”

The first space shuttle launched in 1981, but in reality, the concept of a reusable craft capable of landing like an airplane had been in the works since the 1950s. Even before the moon landings, NASA had been toying with space shuttle designs, and the “entirely new type of space transportation system” was famously given the go-ahead by President Nixon in 1972.

Columbia’s inaugural spaceflight took place on April 12, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Commander John W Young and pilot Robert Crippen landed the craft two days later, completing their mission to demonstrate safe launch and return.

Like Apollo before it, the shuttle programme was a Boy’s Own adventure. Star Trek fans lobbied to have a test craft named ‘Enterprise’. Preparing to blast off, the shuttle and its boosters contain 2.5 million moving parts. The double-delta wings, robotic arms, open cargo doors, spacewalks and live astronaut link-ups all made for unforgettable images.

The launches were the icing on the cake. Like millions of kids, I watched the countdowns on TV, gasping as 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen propelled the shuttle skywards atop of its rising plume. I remember the boosters and fuel tanks being jettisoned, the spaceship becoming smaller and smaller, until finally it was a fireball in the deep blue yonder.

“You’re waiting and hoping, and finally it happens,” says Ruth McAvinia, who travelled to Florida in May to watch the final launch of Endeavor. “Due to the difference in the speed of light and sound, you see it go up, and then you hear this amazing, crackling, thundering noise a few seconds later. It’s amazing. Lots of people try and video it, but NASA’s advice is just to experience it.”

McAvinia, an alumnus of the International Space University in Strasbourg, is originally from Drogheda. She’ll be travelling to Kennedy Space Centre again this week, as one of 150 invitees to a NASA Tweet-up at the Atlantis launch (the Twitter hashtag is #nasatweetup).

“You can see from the last few flights of Discovery and Endeavor that the hype has been ramping up,” she says. “Apart from those on site at the Kennedy Space Centre, so many people get viewing spots along the space coast. There could be up to a million watching the last launch.”

They will witness the end of an era. Over 30 years, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor have been NASA’s workhorses. They have built and supplied the International Space Station, bit by bit. They have conducted thousands of experiments, delivered satellites into orbit, repaired the Hubble telescope and contributed hugely to our understanding of space.

There have been tragedies too, of course. In 1986, seal failures in a booster rocket caused Challenger to disintegrate, killing six astronauts and civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe after just 73 seconds of flight. In 2003, Columbia was destroyed during re-entry, due to damage sustained after foam debris clipped one of its wings after take-off. All seven crew members were killed.

Reviews of both disasters were devastating, reporting that internal pressures to complete missions and a culture of complacency in NASA had led to the underestimation of risks.

Despite costing 14 lives and billions of dollars, however, there’s a general feeling that history will view the space shuttle positively, and its failings were outweighed by a greater success.

“Any loss of life has to be lamented,” says David Moore. “But when you’re at the cutting edge of technology and exploration, it’s a very high risk business.”

“The idea that we have humans permanently in space on the ISS is amazing,” says Ann Fitzpatrick. “Look at all of the scientific and technological breakthroughs… that’s the thing to focus on, not the cost. If we weren’t pushing the limits, there are lots of things we wouldn’t have.”

Ireland has played a part in those breakthroughs too. When Atlantis delivered the ESA’s Columbus lab to the ISS in 2007, for example, it carried core software designed by Dublin company, Skytek.

And though Ireland has yet to produce an astronaut, it has produced an astronaut’s wife. Jane Egan, originally from Kinsale, is married to Dan Tani, who has flown two shuttle missions, spent 120 days aboard the International Space Station and logged over 35 hours of spacewalks.

In 2007, Tani was interviewed live in the ISS, and spoke about how excited he was to pick out the lights of Kinsale from space. He has visited schools in West Cork, and celebrated his 47th birthday in orbit with a live link-up to family and friends in Cork’s Blackrock Castle Observatory.

In another live link, the commander of Endeavor’s final flight, Mark E Kelly, beamed into a U2 concert recently at Seattle’s Quest Field. “Imagine a man looking down on us from 200 miles up. What would he say to us? What is on your mind, Commander Kelly?” Bono asked.

Kelly, of course, is the husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a gun attack earlier this year. “Tell my wife I love her very much,” he said, echoing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. “She knows.” Cue the opening bars of ‘Beautiful Day’.

NASA will be hoping next Friday is a beautiful day too. After a 12-day mission, and detaching itself from the Space Station for a final time, Atlantis will return home at 7.06AM on July 20.

After that, the shuttles will make their way to the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Centre visitor complex and the California Science Centre, and scientists and engineers will turn their attention to the next generation of space travel.

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