Last week, our Space Shuttle Atlantis completed its final mission, having taken to the skies and left our Mother Earth’s gravitational embrace 33 times. The landing of Atlantis ended an era of manned space flight that’s punctuated our history and inspired more than a single generation to lift its head and dream in science. From April 1981 to July 2011, 852 members of the human race leapt free of our homeworld. All but fourteen returned safely thanks to the shuttle.
Our shuttle program turned manned space flight from the improbable to the achievable. Unlike their predecessors, shuttles are reusable. A space shuttle could land on a runway, not unlike an airplane (although not that much like an airplane, either, as it’s more of a controlled crash with landing gear). But prior to that, spacecraft did actually crash into the ocean. The crews had to be retrieved, and much of the craft’s parts were irreclaimable.
The space shuttle’s reusability made the actual trip and return out of the atmosphere to be a consistent experience, which allowed the crews to expand their tasks to other studies while in orbit. Some of that research has spread out to commercial technological improvements that we enjoy today.
The People Still Up There
With the conclusion of the Shuttle program, Nasa ends a mission, but not all of them. The International Space Station still includes Americans in its crew as it maintains its full complement of staff. It is expected that commercial companies will eventually make the trips in place of NASA, along with other worldwide space agencies like the ESA (Europe), Japan, and Russia.