Atlantis launch marks a bittersweet end to shuttle program

Atlantis is headed to the International Space Station. Atlantis is headed to the International Space Station. Getty Images

Kennedy Space Center, Fla. -- Finding a break in the clouds, NASA's Atlantis space shuttle lifted off toward the International Space Station at 11:29 a.m. EDT on Friday, from launch pad 39A. This will be Atlantis' 33rd and final flight, and the last mission of NASA's space shuttle fleet.

NASA is retiring the space shuttle program after decades of travel to and from low-Earth orbit, ending "an amazing 30-year program of exploration, which launched great observatories, built an International Space Station, and taught us more about how humans can live and work in space," the space agency said.

Conceived as a vehicle for transporting humans and cargo into space, the shuttle program made travel into space routine, but not cheap. The 135 flights required a vast organization of research, development and operations across NASA centers in Florida, Texas, California and Alabama, among others. Each shuttle flight cost an estimated $450 million.

When Atlantis' 12-day mission is over, many of the civil servants and contractors who made travel to space possible will look for new work. The International Space Station will stay in orbit until 2020, yet the U.S. government will have no direct means of access.

In Need of a New Direction and Resources

President George W. Bush officially announced the retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2004, but a clear replacement project is elusive. NASA initiated the Constellation program to return to the moon and travel to Mars during the Bush administration, but the program was cut last year. Federal space policy seemed an after-thought for an Obama White House consumed with an economic downturn in 2010, until a breakthrough this spring in which NASA commissioned private firms -- with federal support -- to begin development of lower-cost solutions for entry into space. In addition, NASA plans to develop a heavy-lift vehicle to go beyond low-Earth orbit.

The Office of Management and Budget and congressional committees have yet to finalize their appropriations for the space agency. Just Thursday, a House subcommittee voted to cut $1.6 billion in the agency's fiscal 2012 budget, bringing spending to $1.9 billion less than President Obama's request. The subcommittee mark-up includes $3.65 billion for space exploration, or $152 million below last year's budget, but cuts space operations and NASA science programs such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

"Big, hard things to do technically are big, hard things to do politically," said Christopher Scolese, NASA associate administrator, in an interview with Government Executive.

As NASA lays off civil servants and contractors, commercial firms are trying to fill the void of the space shuttle as soon as 2014. Until then, "we'll have to rely on rides from the Russians for a while," Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said Friday in a post-launch news conference. NASA's international partners, too, will look to the Russians to service their experiments and segments on the International Space Station, but believe multiple country access to space is essential. "The Russian craft is reliable, as well," said Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut who has flown in both the shuttle and the Russian Soyuz, "but the shuttle is more convenient -- I live in Houston."

Cuts will require the space center in Florida to reduce its workforce of operations managers and technicians from 15,000 to 8,200 employees. Only 2,100 of the remaining employees will be civil servants -- more than 6,000 contractors will lose their jobs at the end of July.

"Many of these workers have spent 25 years in one job," said Lisa Malone, director of public affairs at Kennedy Space Center. "They have unique experience . . . they're so disciplined and feel honored and privileged to have been a part of the shuttle program." What these thousands of technical specialists and engineers will do next, and what experience they will take with them, remains unanswered.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations at NASA, said it is critical for the agency to capture the knowledge of shuttle workers. "We have an extensive lessons learned program captured with multimedia" plus a database, he said. But he added he thinks the best way to retain the experience would be to "move people from one activity and apply it to a new program."

Space as Personal

The mood among NASA managers at the Space Center on Friday was bittersweet. Managers lingered in the launch control center after Atlantis was safely into orbit, and savored the final moments of "launch day," usually an occasion for celebration.

Engineers were satisfied with the day's events and praised the professionalism of the shuttle team, but fear the country may not retain its dominance in human spaceflight. The U.S. public agrees: 58 percent said it is essential that the United States continues to be the world leader in space exploration in a recent poll by the Pew Center for People and the Press. The poll did not ask them to rank space travel relative to other national priorities.

Commemorative pins and banners for Atlantis' last flight featured prominently at the launch, while managers spoke of the opportunities for travel beyond low-Earth orbit that the space shuttle could not offer. "To change is hard," Malone said. "But we knew it was coming and we've been planning for it. We will evolve."

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