For the last time, a space shuttle, the Atlantis, launched from Cape Canaveral early this month, marking the end of 30 years of the Space Shuttle program. The final space mission, STS-135, launched successfully on July 8th at 11:29 am and connected with the International Space Station on July 10th.
The space shuttle was originally designed to be inexpensive and safe, with the ability to be relaunched 64 times per year at a cost of $54 million per launch. In practice, the shuttle was launched less than five times per year and cost approximately $1.5 billion per launch. The high cost and experimental nature of the space shuttle progam were important factors that prompted NASA to look for successors and bring an end to the program.
This space mission is notable not only as the final space shuttle flight, but as the first mission since 1983 to fly with only four people. This is because no space shuttles were available for standby in case of an emergency rescue mission. Instead, if the shuttle was damaged, the astronauts would move into the International Space Station and return individually though Soyuz capsules over the course of a year.
For mission STS-135, Atlantis delivered the usual modules that the other shuttles brought up, which are described in previous articles of The Iron Warrior. Some unique equipment on this flight were the Robotic Refueling Mission and TriDAR.
The Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) was a mission designed to demonstrate how shuttles or spacecraft could, in the future, be refueled completely through robotic means. NASA is hoping they can transition this technology from research to commercial use.
TriDAR is a sensor package designed for use as a rendezvous and docking sensor, and is funded partially by the Canadian Space Agency. It’s unique in the sense that it uses a laser-based 3D sensor and thermal imager to measure distance, instead of reference markers on the other spaceship.
It is also interesting to note that the shuttle brought up an iPhone 4 and two Nexus S phones for use in experiments. The iPhone 4 was brought up to measure the effects of radiation on computer memory and run tests on the accelerometer, gyroscope and cameras in space. The Nexus S phones were brought for use in SPHERES, which are small eight-inch satellites used to test experiments in small environments. The phones give the SPHERES cameras, sound recording and increased processing power.
After Atlantis’ returns, NASA is not expected to commission a new spaceship until 2016 at the very earliest, instead they are opting to make deals with the private sector and they are purchasing Soyuz spacecraft from Russia in the interim period. Now that the space shuttle program is complete, we will have to wait to see what new discoveries can be made with whatever spacecraft replaces space shuttles.