Shuttle leaves space station for last time

shuttlereuters.jpg Space shuttle Atlantis, pictured from the International Space Station as it departs the platform for the last time, July 19, 2011. Photo: NASA


  1. I was never a space nut, never followed any launches but I just like the shuttle design over the lifting body. One cool thing that I’m sure the new lifting body will have is the small jets that align the craft to whatever position is needed in space. Also those awesome insulated tiles. I wonder what other amazing technologies are on the shuttle.

    1. The ISS totally should have scrounged that robot arm.

      But then how would the shuttle wave goodbye?

  2. I fear that everything from this point onward will be increasingly large steps backward in terms of technological evolution. These days, the focus is money, power, politics; but it all seems to come down to hubris, in the end.

    Not the advancement of humanity. Not saving our planet by helping our race get off of it; get out of the cradle, take care of business.

    Yeah, yeah, take care of the problems here on Earth, first. Well, there will always be problems, there will always be excuses. If that’s what you want to do, be my guest.

    I want off this rockball. Alive, and in one piece. If you don’t want to risk it, fine; stay here.

    But get the hell out of my way.

  3. I love the photo. I only wish I could find a high-res version. I haven’t found it in the NASA galleries.

    The way I see it, in 25 years this mission will be either an Apollo 17 type mission or more like the last of the Gemini missions-a stepping stone to better things. I really do hope it is the latter.

    While it does seem trite, the one thing we all can do if we care about the future of the US in space is call/email/tweet your congressman or congresswoman. Last I heard the James Webb telescope is in danger of being canceled. While it is quite overbudget it really does have the potential to outshine Hubble in bringing fantastic images & data that will inspire. And really it probably costs less than an aircraft carrier. One more aircraft carrier or the ability to peer back into the beginning of the universe. For me it’s obvious.

    1. There are many things in this world that should be obvious. You know the drill though, there are none so blind as those who will not see, and it’s hard to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends upon his not understanding it.

      Learning how to live in space and leave this world would alleviate a great deal of existential risk for humanity, with enormous technological and economic benefits. Ditto for solving global warming by ending fossil fuel use.

      We know that for reducing crime and terrorism, schools and economic development are both cheaper and more effective than bombs and guns.

      We know that Medicare spends less per beneficiary that private insurance to achieve equally good (or better) outcomes.

      We know that if we let wild fish populations recover, the sustainable yield in a decade or two would be greater than what we currently can harvest unsustainably.

      There are more examples, but you get the idea.

  4. So are the people on the ISS going to come down with the shuttle, or do they have to just cross their fingers and hope they’ll get down someday?

    1. They’ll be ferried back and forth my the Russians. The Soyuz spacecraft are now the only way to go to space.

  5. Lovely shot.

    Hubris is what got the Space Shuttle program started in the first place. It was sold as a radical departure from expendable boosters that incorporated reusable elements that would make lifting mass to orbit far cheaper. And it was supposed to support high launch rates, upward of one per week.

    It definitely pushed technology as far as it could go (which is hardly a bad thing)- but it turned out to be more expensive than expendable boosters, not cheaper. And weekly shuttle flights never materialized- recovering and refurbishing the orbiter and SRBs was too complex.

    The shuttle program was so expensive, and took so long to develop, that it became its own reason for being- manned space missions were tailored to match the shuttle’s capabilities and schedule, and any other idea for a mission -like leaving Earth orbit- was a non-starter. Likewise development of alternative manned heavy-lift capability- well, there wasn’t any. The US Air Force maintained development of unmanned heavy-lift boosters when shuttle availability for military payloads fell short.

    The Columbia accident revealed the Achillies heel of the system- tile damage on ascent that is either not detected or not repairable in orbit. There’s no fix that doesn’t induce a substantial performance penalty, so it hasn’t been fixed, only watched more closely. Every launch is a roll of the dice.

    The space shuttle program has been undisputably amazing -and heartbreaking. It has been operational for almost thirty years- far longer than the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs combined.

    Time to put the orbiters in museums and build new craft to carry us away from the cradle.

  6. About time.

    All that the Shuttle did was to show what successful technology is *not* about. It’s not about the biggest bang. It’s all about the biggest bang for the buck.

    Successful technology is boring.

    If it’s exciting, you’re doing it wrong – unless you’re doing science. But science is not about technology. If it’s technology you’re dealing with – technology you’re actually intending to use for real – you take the simplest serviceable solution, using the latest and greatest sparingly and only where it can’t possibly be avoided.

    Look at the Ford T, compare it to its failed (shiny, modern, high-tech!) competitors and you know that much.

    Today, the shuttle is neither shiny nor modern nor high tech. It’s piloted by a more than rusty 1.4MHz computer that NASA never bothered to replace, because it lacked the spirit and ambition to develop new software every once in a decade or so. It certainly never lacked the money. The shuttle’s heat-shield is fragile, dangerous and consists of tens of thousands of *HAND MADE* tiles. Damn it, people have freaking robots to clean their carpets and mow their lawns. And you wonder why the Shuttle is so expensive.

    It just a superfluous hulk of aluminum uselessly shoved into orbit by a rocket powerful enough that it could send people on a trip to the moon – if only its engines weren’t attached to that useless hulk of aluminum.

    Bad riddance.

    Its retirement came far too late.

    1. Lack of ambition isn’t really an accurate assessment of NASA’s motivations for keeping the computing power of the shuttle “stagnant”. There is obviously a lot riding on every launch so sticking with what works and can be counted on takes top priority. To your very own point, they keep it as simple and “boring” as possible for the sake of predictability. If that 1.4 MHz processor can do the job, what would be the point of updating it?

      Here is a fascinating article on the space shuttle program, software development process:

      1. This stops being true when not writing new software means that you’re stuck with old hardware that’s no longer in production. Nobody in their right mind makes that kind of hardware anymore, and certainly not with the equipment and professionalism needed to make it as reliable as it was, when you could still order brand new replacements. Which makes the whole affair more unpredictable and unreliable than if new hard- and software had been used.

        And, indeed, Atlantis *had* trouble with said computer:

    2. Wasn’t it boring? The media is swirling around this because it was the last flight. How many of the previous missions had coverage that amounted to a video of the launch or landing or anecdotes about clogged toilets? This system had 132 successful missions, and sent over 300 people into orbit, far more than any of our previous efforts. I’d be willing to bet that total tonnage of cargo lifted into orbit must be staggering. Yes, I’d like to be living on a Moonbase or walking on Mars, but it took centuries to colonize the New World. I think can afford to take the long view.

      1. Problem A: 14 people weren’t sent into the orbit, but the graveyard – because the Shuttle is fragile and its lack of crew safety systems makes Chernobyl look like a good idea.

        Problem B: 132 missions, 918 people (+14 dead), average actual payload was 11.6t to LEO, about 1500t all told.

        Currently, the Russians use their monopoly to charge $55mio per Astronaut trying to get into orbit via Soyuz. That’s about as much as the whole mission costs (with three seats per Soyuz), so it’s overpriced by a factor of about three. But let’s say just 2.5.
        Despite all that the costs are small: 918 passenger * $55mio/passenger = $50bn

        What about freight? An Ariane 5 can get 20t into LEO for $200mio per flight. That’s $10mio per ton. Getting 1500t into orbit costs $15bn. Use an American Delta IV Heavy for the same purpose and it’s about $30bn, because American corruption is that bad.

        Crew (way overpriced): $50bn
        Crew (realistic): $20bn

        Freight (overpriced): $30bn
        Freight (realistic): $15bn

        Sum (overpriced): $80bn
        Sum (realistic): $35bn

        The Shuttle program cost over $200bn.

        1. Okay, so what is your alternative that is cheaper, better, and will be available within the next 5 years or so? SpaceX just got its Dragon capsule to orbit a couple of times; it’s promising, but not there yet, and definitely not the capacity the Shuttle had.

          I agree the Shuttle needed an update/overhaul a couple of decades ago, but since the people controlling the purse strings weren’t up for it, we did what we could with what we had.

          1. SpaceX just got its Dragon capsule to orbit a couple of times; it’s promising, but not there yet, and definitely not the capacity the Shuttle had.

            I’m not convinced a single vehicle that has all the capabilities of the shuttle is what we should be striving for anyway. There’s no reason we should need a manned spacecraft just to launch large cargo into orbit, and a sufficiently advanced robotic spacecraft (like some variation of the X-37 spaceplane in use now) might even be able to retrieve cargo and bring it back to earth if need be.

            Send the hardware up in expendable rockets. Send the people up in the safest vehicle you know how to build.

          2. The capacity of the Shuttle was never needed.

            It wasn’t needed to build a space station – all Russian modules of the ISS were lifted into space with ordinary rockets, not to mention that MIR was entirely build this way.

            Lifting 7 people into space is useless, if you don’t need to lift 7 people into space. In the 1980ies, NASA used the Shuttle to get all its satellites into orbit. Exactly what was the point of dragging 7 people along?

            Even after the ISS, there was only a need to bring 3 people to the space station. The other 4 were just taken along for the ride on the Shuttle.

            Cargo? Forget about it. Even though the propaganda dept. of NASA pretends that nothing can replace the Shuttle’s capacity to haul cargo, Atlantis didn’t bring any more supplies to the ISS than the European ATV could (if it didn’t have to bring fuel to the ISS, which the Shuttle didn’t do).

            Repairing satellites on orbit?

            For a cost of $1.5bn per Shuttle launch absolutely any satellite can be replaced, most of them several times over – that includes Hubble, though it wasn’t done, because the USA tries to keep up the pretense that it’s somehow unique and not based on the same kind of technology that the Keyhole Spy satellites (KH-11) were based on … of which about 10 were build and launched since 1978 or so.

            Getting satellites into orbit? Use conventional rockets. Those are much cheaper and can reach any orbit and aren’t chained to low earth orbit because of the ridiculous empty mass of the Shuttle.

            So, how do you get people into orbit?

            Well, NASA screwed that up all by itself when it failed to switch its brain on and tell Bush that physics and economics didn’t agree with his vision of the Constellation program right from the start.

            There is a bit of a chance though, that SpaceX won’t screw up too many of its Dragon cargo launches and get the Dragon man-rated until 2015. I don’t think that it will carry 7 astronauts as advertised, but there’s only room for 6 astronauts on the ISS anyway, half of whom are getting their trips via Soyuz. So, 3-4 are actually enough.

            No idea how far Boeing’s CST-100 or the Dreamchaser are really along. Man-rating the Atlas V is only in the planning stages, nothing concrete as of yet – there is some opposition against the Atlas V because its main engine is a Russian RD-180 (a version of the RD-170 in the Soviet Buran’s four booster rockets, though only running at half power).

            Forget about Orion or STS, if those get anywhere, that’s a surprise. Spare yourself the (very) likely disappointment.

    3. As far as old computers go I believe NASA has to space-rate all of that equipment, which involves a lot of testing and expense. They can’t just go down to Best Buy and plug in the latest and greatest every year. I sure as hell wouldn’t want a BSOD on liftoff.

      1. Which NASA has done successfully for dozens of payloads in the last decades. Cassini, the Mars Rovers, lots of other space probes and satellites, several space telescopes (that people never heard of, because they didn’t need outrageously expensive service missions by design) … It’s neither terribly expensive nor hard to do, in the context of a $200,000,000,000 project.

        I also never implied that it should get the latest and greatest every year. “Once a decade or so” is not every year, at least not in the language that I’m speaking, when I think I’m speaking English. It is one major upgrade some time in the 1990ies and possibly, but not necessarily, another in the following decade.

  7. Putting people or other loads into orbit is an expensive business. The shuttle has been continuously updating its technology (they could not have done otherwise).

    I would strongly recommend this fantastic series of lectures from the MIT opencourseware on several of the shuttle’s aspects (from aerodynamics to operations to the accident investigations) to anyone with an interest to this…spaceship (!) :-)

    So many details, so many parameters, so much hard work (not all of it is going to go wasted from now on of course). I don’t think that all this can be simply dismissed from the comfort of one’s chair…

    If WE are sad to see it go, imagine how the people who worked on it all these years feel.

    I am not pesimistic about the future, maybe private companies will bring faster changes and they also have plans for vehicles similar to the shuttle (only, later in time, while the shuttle was…current!)…..It’s just that….going back to a rocket kind of thing (after the shuttle!) is a bit of a let down at the moment :-D

  8. Friend of mine on Facebook passed me the following yesterday: “Just before the shuttle lands, everybody put on an ape suit. Pass it on.”

  9. Congratulations to the brilliant and hard-working people of the shuttle program. Despite conflicting design constraints, political wrangling, and defective parts, they got it built and flying, and kept it flying well past its intended lifetime. Bravo, folks. Well done.

    I have mixed feelings about this event. I would be less sad to see the shuttle program end if I felt more confident that something would come along soon to replace it. If the private space vehicle builders come through with something amazing to replace it, great. If not, I fear we’re stuck on the ground. The collective imagination of the American people hardly seems to reach past the latest 3D movie or newest cell phone these days, so it seems obvious that it’s going to be the dreamers and the doers in private industry who must come through. I just read the science-fiction book “Titan” by Stephen Baxter. In it, a fundamentalist Christian politician (who is ultimately elected president) systematically dismantles America’s space capabilities, on the premise that there’s nothing more to be done out there, there’s nowhere we want to go, and that it’s all just a big waste of money. There are days when I fear that’s not going to be fiction forever.

  10. I always thought they should have done a lap around the moon in a shuttle. Alass it appears too bloated to have made that kind of journey.

    1. A permanent human presence aboard the largest human construct in outer space. Nothing to shake a stick at.

      Also everyone seems to be forgetting that we were in a similar position in the 1970s at the end of Apollo. We are waiting for the next vehicle, they have tested Ares and are testing the J-2X engine. We’ll get there, and we may have more significant help from private industry next time.

  11. Good news citizens! Our Victory Gin rations have been increased from 17 litres to 15 litres per month!

  12. Anybody else kinda wish the shuttle crew would decide that they weren’t going to hand the shuttle over, and instead just fly off into space? I’d imagine one-liners like “We can’t let her get sold off to the highest bidder… she belongs in space!” or something similar?

    Anyone? No? Just me? ok, I can live with that…

  13. I’m still waiting for the “cheaper, better, faster” option. Agreed, we don’t need one rocket to be all things to all people, but we should have one for any reasonable eventuality, whether it’s cargo or people, and a way to return things safely. The Shuttle is done, so what do we have that’s the next step?

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