Econintersect: Three days remain until the U.S. space program, as we have known it for the past 20 years, ends on July 20. That is the day that Atlantis is scheduled to land back on earth, completing the final flight of the space shuttle program which began with the launch of the first shuttle vehicle Columbia on April 12, 1981 (STS-1). The Atlantis is carrying out the 135th space shuttle mission. A total of six space shuttle vehicles were placed in service and three have survived to the end of the program. One of the vehicles, the Enterprise, was an experimental test design and was never used for a full mission, only for launch and landing trial runs.Two vehicles were lost in tragic accidents: Challenger was lost shortly after launch in its second flight in 1986 and Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003. Besides Atlantis, the other two spacecraft that survived to the end of the program are Discovery and Endeavor.
The future of the U.S. venturing into space now depends on NASA buying passage on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, or on future commercial space craft which are not yet developed. NASA still retains responsibility for managing the International Space Station; they just don’t have any way to get their on their own. NASA has a five-year agreement for transportation from the Russian program.
The four members of the 135th space shuttle mission and space station crew members form a microgravity circle for a portrait in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station in the photo below. ( Photo: NASA)
The status of the Atlantis flight is being updated throughout the flight at a NASA web site.
But space travel and exploration is not ending. A series of videos covers some of the more recent history of space programs:
Mission Control, Houston…Signing out (forever?).
There are a number of private enterprise space programs underway, including United Launch Alliance (Lockhead Martin and Boeing partnership), Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada Corporation , SpaceX , Benson Space Company and Rocketplane Kistler. See Wikipedia.
The Apollo program, which got Neil Armstrong and others to the moon, cost $109 billion. There were six moon landings at a cost of $18 billion each.
During the past decade, NASA averaged spending $16 billion to $18 billion per year. This year’s budget is $18.7 billion.
The entire NASA program, during its 57 years, cost just less than half a trillion dollars.
Will we now find out if “more efficient” private enterprise is better?
Sanjeev Kulkarni contributed to this article.