by Rach Gee via SandbookNet
“And the final lift off of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the Space Shuttle, America will continue the dream.”
And, with those words, flight STS-135 kissed gravity goodbye.
I was two days short of being two months old when the first Space Shuttle launched. It was April 12th 1981, and she was manned by astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen. The Shuttle has never had an unmanned flight, which is a normal procedure for new craft so they really were making history. The first manned space flight of an untested vehicle. With it, the Space Shuttle carried the dreams of many, dreams which had only existed in science fiction.
Conceived long before man even stepped onto the Moon, the Space Shuttle has allowed us to expand our knowledge of the universe. Able to carry large payloads, it was thanks to this ingenious machine that the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station were able to be realised. Without it, we would never receive some of the mind-blowing and beautiful images which Hubble has sent back to Earth. Without it, we would not have been able to interplanetary explorers into space.
While Enterprise (named for the USS Enterprise from Star Trek) was only used for test flights within Earth’s atmosphere, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor completed 135 space flights between them. They’ve taken 355 astronauts into space since 1981 and have flown 870,000,000 kilometres. Each shuttle and its boosters have 2.5 million moving parts and, at take off, weigh a staggering 2.04 million kilogrammes. This final mission is carrying 3.5 tonnes (one year’s worth) of supplies to the International Space Station. Other than Enterprise, the other five orbiters were named after famous ships.
Tragically there were two Shuttle disasters, resulting in the loss of fourteen lives. On January 28th 1986, Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after take off, while on February 1st 2003, Columbia disintegrated during re-entry. I remember watching the Columbia disaster as it happened and the tales of how the crew could have still been alive as they fell to Earth haunt me to this day.
For me, the Shuttle has been a poignant piece of engineering as I grew up with it. Coming from an engineering family, it has a special place not just in my heart, but in the hearts of many of those I’m related to. As a kid, I remember dreaming about learning to fly the Shuttle and see space for myself. I wanted to be there, sat atop what was essentially a very large bomb, waiting to be blasted to the outer reaches of our knowledge. I wanted to see if there really was life on the dark side of the Moon. I wanted to watch the sun set and then rise again. Most of all, I wanted to fulfil what has been the childhood dream of so many; to go to space.
There is something amazing, something astounding, about this fire-breathing creation which manages to leave the Earth’s gravitational pull and head for the stars. There’s something mind-blowing about a machine which, while carrying humans, can move at over 4 miles per second. I know that it’s been not just us who marvel as it hangs seemingly motionless in space, capturing breathtaking images of the Earth below it. An Earth which we wouldn’t have seen had it not been for one of mankind’s greatest creations. Some may call the mobile phone or the computer the pinnacle inventing and engineering but, without the Shuttle to take help take some of the satellites into space, you wouldn’t have that connectivity. Because of it, we have a world which is faster and far more beautiful than you can ever imagine. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at some of the stunning images returned by astronauts and the Hubble telescope.
And, on July 8th 2011, at 16.30 GMT the Space Shuttle Atlantis took off for the last time. As they departed after final checks, flight crews issued heart felt messages for the 30 years of service that the Shuttle program has given them. The words “Godspeed Atlantis” were heard over and over, while banners featuring the words “Best Wishes Atlantis” were seen hanging in the Space Center. I cried, and I’m proud to say that I did. It is most certainly the end of a very iconic era.
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