As a record crowd looked on, the space shuttle Atlantis landed softly at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, marking the final shuttle mission for NASA and ending the 30-year program. The idea for the reusable spacecraft was hatched in 1972, during the Nixon administration. It was intended to become part of a shuttle space station, with hopes of a possible future human trip to Mars. Atlantis's final voyage, mission Space Transportation System-135 (STS-135), had a crew of four that delivered a stockpile of supplies and parts to the International Space Station.
"I think the shuttle program is ending exactly as it should," said Program Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses. "We've built the International Space Station; we're stocking it up for the future and ready to hand it off -- and we finish really, really strong."
Over the years and hundreds of flights, the fleet of five shuttles built the largest structure in space (the International Space Station) and transported astronauts to and from it. Shuttle crews also repaired the space station, captured wayward satellites, launched the Hubble Space Telescope, and conducted numerous scientific experiments. The overall cost of the program is estimated to have been $209 billion. But the program yielded much more than space shots and space walks. More than 1,700 NASA technologies have influenced U.S. industries and generated hundreds of spinoffs we use in everyday life, including longer-lasting tires, improved cell phone camera technology, and lightweight home insulation.
The shuttle era will also be remembered for its two tragedies.
Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1986. Rubber O-ring seals failed and caused an explosion, killing its crew of seven, including teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe.
Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on February 1, 2003. A chunk of foam insulation had broken off from an external tank during launch, damaging a protective heat shield on one of the shuttle's wings. The damage caused the destruction of the spacecraft as it returned to Earth, killing all seven aboard. The catastrophes and the the high cost of the program -- calculated by the Obama administration at 7 cents per American per day -- may have led to a cut in funding. Another possible reason for the cut: American people may no longer have an appetite for the risk of failure.
The remaining three shuttles, now retired, are slated to be housed in museums: Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; and Endeavor at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The International Space Station will be serviced primarily by the Russian Federal Space Agency's Soyuz spacecraft. Some suggest that Russian has the advantage to become the absolute leader in space. However, there's a strong chance that China is poised to take over the top spot in manned space flights. And still others claim the U.S. still leads in space exploration.
As for NASA, they are hoping that private firms step up to commercialize flights to the space station, as well as considering manned trips to Mars. Boeing has thrown its hat in the ring, saying the company could offer passenger trips to the International Space Station by 2015. A project called Space Adventures aims to offer trips around the moon, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is already testing two suborbital crafts.
NASA, on the other hand, plans to develop a deep-space rocket to go beyond the range of the shuttle; the program is awaiting Congressional funding. A recent poll of Americans showed that 52% thought the shuttle program was worth its costs; 59% agreed that the space program would be better off if it got "out of Washington" and cut the bureaucracy.
So, the space shuttles are forever grounded, and the future of the space program is up in the air.