Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final landing today at the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida officially marking the end of NASA’s 30 year-long space shuttle program that included 5 vessels, 135 missions and millions of gallons of fuel. We are sad to see the space shuttle go — it is endlessly amusing to watch people float in zero-gravity — but we are a little relieved to know that the blast of emissions from each shuttle launch will no longer be spewing into the atmosphere adding to the effects of global warming. NASA’s future mission is deep space flight and because of the massive amounts of thrust and probability of light-weight future vessels, fossil fuel will most likely be pushed aside for a lighter, more environmentally friendly propellant.
Each of the Space Shuttles carried two million pounds of solid rocket fuel propellant with them at launch, split between the two solid rocket boosters, and burned approximately 660,000 pounds of solid fuel and 45,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen per minute during takeoff. In addition to the amount of fuel used, each launch cost NASA — and United States taxpayers — $450 million per mission (and don’t forget that the shuttles themselves came in at a price tag of $1.7 billion each at the time the Endeavor was built). During the program there were also two great tragedies that killed a total of 14 courageous astronauts. The Shuttle Program was meant to help build the International Space Station, a joint venture between a number of countries which has now been completed.
As NASA looks into the future, they are hoping to reach beyond the Space Station’s orbit — which extends to about 330 miles above the Earth’s surface — deeper into space where astronauts could explore the moon, asteroids and possibly other planets. In order to reach such distances,NASA would have to throw their current rocket fuel out the window, since it is so heavy it would impede future rockets’ abilities to reach speeds necessary for deep space travel. Fortunately, there are quite a few teams already studying alternatives like solar wind sails, nuclear powered rockets, hydrogen powered space planes and vessels that would harvest gas from Uranus to travel.
So, we say congratulations on the boundary pushing NASA Space Shuttle Program for a mission accomplished, but as with all first successful ventures, there are things to be improved upon. We’ll miss the constant photos of crazy-haired astronauts eating floating sandwiches and wearing really fun looking clothes but we look forward to a space program that treads lighter on the planet it blasts off from in order to safely explore the new frontier.