The Last Shuttle Launch

If all goes according to plan, space shuttle Atlantis will launch this Friday! As part of the STS-135 mission, Atlantis will carry the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station. The mission also will fly a system to investigate the potential for robotically refueling existing spacecraft and return a failed ammonia pump module to help NASA better understand the failure mechanism and improve pump designs for future systems.

I was lucky enough to get into the NASA Tweetup so I am in Orlando today, and if all goes well, I’ll be witnessing history this weekend. Follow me on Twitter to watch the fun! The Tweetup is tomorrow and the launch is currently scheduled for Friday.

And check out the links below for more information.

STS-135 Mission page:

STS-135 Mission Summary:

STS-135 Press Kit:

Launch countdown 101:

Atlantis fact sheet:

Launch countdown milestones

Space Shuttle Era fact sheet:

Media briefings televised on NASA TV:

NASA Tweetup online:

The Twitter account for the Tweetup is @NASAtweetup.  The hashtag for the event is #NASATweetup. The list of confirmed NASA Tweetup attendees is at And don’t forget to follow the entire STS-135 crew on Twitter:

Commander Chris Ferguson: @Astro_Ferg

Pilot Doug Hurley: @Astro_Doug

Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus: @Astro_Sandy

Mission Specialist Rex Walheim: @Astro_Rex

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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    1. Seconded. I think I am turning green as Kermit from the envy.
      It would have been awesome to see a shuttle launch, and now I almost certainly never will. Alas, the faults of being too young.

  1. I agree Daniellelynn. It is sad. I remember when Enterprise flew for the first time in 1977.

    The US, after decades of leading human spaceflight will be without a program. We will have to turn to the Russians for any kind of a heavy lift capability. There is no date on when the next heavy lift rocket will be ready. My understanding is that we are years away from even having an approved design.

    Truly a sad time for the US Space program.

    1. Actually, no one has heavy lift any more. The top-end US launchers (Delta IV-Heavy and Atlas 5) are pretty close to the most powerful Russian rocket, the Proton, and the European Ariane 5.
      The Augustine Commission 2 years ago proposed a number of options based on the fact that the then current Constellation program was massively underfunded, way behind schedule, and looked like it could eat every penny of NASA’s budget for decades and still not accomplish its basic mission, returning to the Moon. (The moon lander part of Constellation, Altair, had already been put on indefinite hold, simply by not actually providing it with any money, under the Bush administration.) The Augustine Commission recommended. The (to me) most sensible option proposed by the commission was called “flexible path.” It called for:
      1) the end to the Constellation Program (particularly the Ares rockets),
      2) extending the Space Station at least until 2020 (NASA was quietly proposing to de-orbit it in 2015 or 2016 and use its budget for Constellation, which certainly did not please our Russian, European or Japanese partners);
      3) use the ISS as a test bed for technologies for a deep-space exploration ship (capable of traveling to the Moon, Mars, or asteroids, and even a fly-by of Venus), but not capable of actually landing on any of them, or re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere);
      4) support development of commercial crew spacecraft to carry people to low Earth orbit (such as the ISS and eventually the deep-space exploration ship), such as a manned version of SpaceX’s Dragon and various others;
      5) develop a new Earth re-entry capsule to use to return to Earth from the deep-space ship, based on the work already done on Orion (which I think had made the most progress of any of the components of Constellation.)
      6) Start the advanced phases of developing a lander for the Moon and or Mars. (I lied a little bit above; the deep-space part could land on small asteroids or the moons of Mars, with just the addition of some legs to keep it from bumping too hard or moving around when you didn’t want it to. Because the gravity of them is so weak, it’s more like docking than landing;
      7) Put some serious work into advanced rocket technologies that could greatly improve exploration. They weren’t explicit what they were talking about but the consensus seems to be things like VASIMR engines, which are high-thrust plasma engines, similar to ion engines but (although less efficient) having much greater thrust and capable of reducing the time for a Mars mission from years to months. Another technology is called thrust augmentation, which is basically an afterburner for rockets. It works best on 1st stages of booster rockets, which carry extra drop tanks of Kerosene or similar fuel, which gets injected into the exhaust near the rim of the nozzle. This greatly increases the thrust of the rocket for the first few minutes of flight (when the rocket is full of fuel and is heaviest, and so gains the most benefit from the increased thrust.) Existing rocket engines can (and for some small-scale ground tests, have been modified to do this, with good results so far. Theoretically, this could greatly increase the payloads of existing rockets, or be used in the design of a new rocket to allow it to be much smaller than previous designs of the same capability;
      8) in about 2015-16, start development of a new heavy-lift rocket, taking advantage of the new tech. The rocket is the fastest and simplest (for rocket science) part of this program, and it doesn’t make sense to develop it until it is needed, especially since waiting a bit can produce a much better rocket.
      9) not gutting all of NASA’s other programs (space science, planetary exploration, Earth observation, astronomy, space telescopes, the ISS, etc.) to pay for any of this. It would be funded from the money previously being spent on the shuttle and on Constellation.
      Early in 2010, the Obama administration announced the cancellation of the Constellation and the start of a new (unnamed) replacement program that seemed almost exactly Flexible Path. One change they made shortly there after was to continue the Orion program (under the memorable new name MPCV), rather than develop a new capsule based on the work done so far on Orion, but not necessarily the same design or by the same contractors.
      It took until November for Congress to do anything and meanwhile, work (and spending) on Constellation continues unabated. Finally, the Senate supported (and the House went along with) and authorization bill including most of the above but with some critical changes. The cut about half the commercial crew proposal and much of the rocket tech R&D, replacing with “build a heavy lift launcher right now” (i.e. finish it by 2015-16, not start it then.) The primary motivation for this seems to have been to preserve jobs in states with big space contractors, i.e. Florida, Alabama, Utah, Texas, Louisiana and to a lesser extent California. (It’s weird that conservative Republicans are all about preserving jobs, while most centrist/leftist Democrats like me are against it…)
      So NASA was now authorized to change course (about 9 months later), but not to actually spend any money on it, which got tied up because the Congress kept doing continuing resolutions (which preserved the old budget for a limited period of time) instead of agreeing to a new budget.
      Meanwhile. a NASA commission is busy studying various options for the “SLS” (jokingly referred to as the Senate Launch System) and is due to report tomorrow (Friday, July 8) with its recommendations. If the launcher is actually built and ready by 2016, it won’t have any suitable payloads for at least 5 years.
      As for alternate US-based crewed flights, there are lots of possibilities and they aren’t as far off as you might think. SpaceX has said they are ready to have a manned version of the Dragon ready in about 2 years from getting the go-ahead (i.e. having NASA or someone else guarantee they’ll pay for some flights.) A human would have survived aboard the 1st Dragon flight last December. It would have been very uncomfortable, since there were no acceleration couches, and the air would have been pretty stale after 4-5 hours, but still breathable (or they might have needed a scuba tank, not sure) because the life support system was minimal to non-existent. and they would have had no control of the spaceship, since there are no control panels on board. But the person would have lived through it. The biggest lack is there’s no launch escape system (but the shuttle doesn’t have one either.) They need to have some sort of life support system even in the cargo-only Dragon, because it needs to be safe for the ISS astronauts to go inside when it’s docked with the station, and some of the cargo includes living plants and animals that need to survive until they reach the ISS. Since they are supposed to due this by December, this has to be pretty much a done deal by now. Couches are pretty much a stock item (as much as anything is in space travel), and the control system is fairly straight-forward. Since a lot of the SpaceX people are from the computer software world, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dragon could actually be controlled by an onboard MacBook with a WiFi connection. (Slight exaggeration.)
      Boeing, Orbital, and several other companies are also working on commercial crew spaceships that they claim could be ready in 3-4 years. And Lockheed-Martin claims Orion could do this by 2015.
      If you’re anywhere near Boston on July 25, come to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub and hear Jonathan McDowell speak on the history and future of the space program. I’m sure he’ll talk about all this stuff, much more authoritatively than I can. (Jonathan, if you’re lurking, please let me know about my more gratuitous errors.)

      1. Thanks Buzz, that was an insightful read. I wasn’t aware the commercial space programs were that close to human spaceflight. I’ll remain hopeful. It also seems that I need to get better caught up on NASA.

  2. It will be a sad sight. As JP says it is a sad time for the US space program. Traditionally the rest of the world has relied on the US to do the really expensive part of space exploration being the only economy with the muscle to pull it off.

    Perhaps a silver lining though. This may lead to greater international co-operation in space exploration as no one country can afford to go it alone.

  3. I’m a space *activist* and I’m glad to see the shuttle go. Not because it’s not a great vehicle, but because we need to move on to more long-term sustainable approach to manned space exploration.

    We learned a lot through the shuttle and got a lot done with it, but it has no potential to evolve into an economically sustainable vehicle for going outside of or even frequently servicing low earth orbit so . The reason: $600 mil – $1 bil per launch.

    If a long term *sustainable* human space access infrastructure is to be formed then the cost of launch must lowered to a level where it’s economically viable for governments and companies to utilize it frequetly. Right now only the US and Russia can put humans in space at the frequency of 2-3 per year, but if the cost was lowered to even $10 million per launch, many governments and private companies could afford to send hundreds of people there to setup commercial operations and an infrastructure for going beyond earth.

    And that’s NASA’s new focus, making it cheaper by funding viable commercial entities. Who might these be? Well they include
    SpaceX – A company that’s got an LEO rocket that goes to orbit for $10 million which has the goal to make human access much cheaper.

    Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites – Two companies who are trying to get a tourism industry in suborbital space with the eventual goal of making suborbital transit a reality.

    Xcor – A company trying to build rocketplanes and propulsion systems for suborbital flights.

    Bigelow Aerospace – A company focused on building cheap commerical habitats in space.


    Basically there’s a new boom on the horizon similar to the aviation boom of 1908, it’s just going much slower because space is hard and it’s much harder than it looks. And what are these companies doing ultimately? They’re building multiple pieces of affordable infrastructure with the hopes of building an economically viable space economy. If we’re going to live & work in space, we need to make it cheap to reach so that an economy can be built around it.

    So lets take the money from the shuttle and put it into these emerging alternatives!

    Here’s a mainstream article articulating these points:

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