In contrast to some of the space shuttle’s majestic, even historic missions, like fixing the Hubble Space Telescope or visiting the Russian space station Mir, NASA is ending its 30-year program with a flight that delves deep into the mundane.
More than five tons of food, clothing, supplies and science equipment (including a urine-recycling bag) are packed aboard shuttle Atlantis, which is due to lift off Friday for the 135th and final shuttle flight. The plan is to deliver the goods to the International Space Station, which is finally open for business after 11 years of construction, 220 miles above Earth.
NASA hopes the stockpile will buy some time in case the companies it hired to fly cargo to the station run into problems. Both firms, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., are expected to begin deliveries next year.
“We built a heck of a national asset up in orbit — an international laboratory. That alone is a great legacy of the shuttle program,” said Mike Moses, NASA’s shuttle integration manager.
“So there is some poetic completeness to the fact that we’re basically going to go stock it up for a year and ensure its viability in the coming times while the next generation of service craft get up there,” he said.
Atlantis is due to return to Earth 12 days later with an even less- glamorous load — the station’s broken equipment and trash. The routine of orbital life is precisely why the United States is giving up its space transportation system after 30 years of operations. NASA simply doesn’t have the budget to fly the shuttles and develop new spaceships that can travel to the moon, asteroids, Mars and other destinations where the shuttles cannot go.
NASA hopes commercial companies will be able to take on the job of ferrying not just cargo but also crews to the station, though those spaceships are at least four years away. In the meantime, the United States will depend on Russia to fly astronauts to the station, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat.
“We’re all excited about the opportunities that NASA will have in the future to start pushing the boundaries of our space exploration,” said Atlantis astronaut Sandy Magnus.
“We've established ourselves very firmly in low-Earth orbit, to the point that there are commercial companies who feel comfortable in starting to operate in that same arena. And that’s what as a government agency we’re supposed to do, keep breaking down these frontiers."