Friday, 22 July 2011

Atlantis | US space dream halts as Atlantis returns

THE Atlantis space shuttle has made its final landing at Cape Canaveral, ending a 30-year program and possibly US domination of space flight.
Emotions ran high at NASA as the crew of four astronauts returned to Earth after a 12-day mission. Before landing, Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson recalled his memory of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969, while imparting his thoughts to NASA flight controllers about the shuttle's historic last flight.

"Forty-two years ago today, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and I consider myself fortunate that I was there to actually remember the event," Ferguson told mission control.
"It is kind of interesting to be here on the final night of the shuttle mission. We don't quite know what to think. We are just trying to take it all in."

After the shuttle rolled to its final stop, the commander and mission control exchanged congratulations and reminiscences about the fleet that "inspired a generation"."America will not stop exploring," said Ferguson.

The job of sending people and goods to the International Space Station orbiting Earth now goes to Russia and private companies.

President Barack Obama wants the US to concentrate on deep-space exploration in future, but NASA lacks a firm timetable and dedicated funds to finance the powerful rockets needed.
The shuttle program, which started with the first launch on April 12, 1981, was based on the concept of low-orbit, reusable spacecraft that could carry a maximum of seven astronauts and almost 23,000kg of cargo. NASA built a fleet of five shuttles -- Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour -- and yesterday's landing marked 133 successful missions.

Two missions ended in tragedy. In 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew on board, when a flame leak from the solid rocket booster ignited the external fuel tank. Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, also killing its crew of seven, after a heat-shield tile damaged during lift-off had gone undetected.

NASA improved safety measures after the Columbia disaster but it prompted a decision by the Bush administration to eventually close the program and refocus attention on deep space.
After 30 years, all three surviving spacecraft are to be mothballed for exhibition in museums.

The crew chosen for the final flight was commander Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. Before landing, Ferguson read a quote from Gene Kranz, NASA's flight director during the Apollo era, who is best known for saving Apollo 13's astronauts when an oxygen tank exploded during a trip to the moon.

"I pray that our nation will someday find the courage to accept the risk and challenges to finish the work that we started," the commander said.

The crew woke yesterday to the song God Bless America and a NASA weather report describing a "gorgeous night at the Kennedy Space Centre".

The astronauts said they were anxious to celebrate the landing with the shuttle's ground crew. "We're very excited about seeing those folks . . . to share the memories of the mission with them and once again just convey how proud we are of them," Hurley said.

Author | Source | Brad Norington | The Australian

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