Atlantis: Even an albatross can be beautiful

With no replacement vehicle planned for years and thousands of job layoffs looming, the future of America’s iconic space programme is unmistakably cloudy.

By Stephen Witt at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

A thunderous sonic boom marked the end of NASA’s space shuttle programme on Thursday, as the orbital spacecraft Atlantis descended through the atmosphere to land at the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast of Florida.

The Atlantis touched down at 5:57am under clear pre-dawn skies, marking the end of the final space shuttle mission. At Mission Control in Houston, NASA staffers applauded and shook hands.

The overall mood, however, was less celebratory. With no replacement vehicle planned for years, and thousands of job layoffs looming, the future of US space flight is unmistakably cloudy.

For the first time in decades, the US has no capacity to put a human being in space. Private-sector providers are supposed to fill that gap, but manned commercial spaceflight is still several years away.

The US must now turn to Russia, its former rival, to buy tickets for its astronauts on the Soyuz space capsule at $63m a head.

Back home, NASA’s highly skilled engineers and support staff suddenly face the terrifying prospect of private-sector employment. Here, on the Space Coast of Florida, more than 7,000 NASA workers and contractors have already been laid off, with further cuts yet to come.

Economic problems

Less than one-third are expected to remain working in Florida, compounding problems for a local economy already feeling the effects of the economic downturn.

Just west of the Space Center, the inland highway is scattered with derelict malls, abandoned houses and thriving bail bonds businesses.

And what’s to blame? Critics point to the shuttle programme itself, as well as the sprawling federal bureaucracy that created it.

As conceived towards the end of the Apollo programme in the 1970s, the space shuttle mission promised horizontal take-off capacity with reduced cost and increased safety.

Instead, after much internal wrangling among different factions of NASA engineers, the programme ended up with an orbiter strapped horizontally to three massive fuel tanks.

The design cost $500m per launch and eventually claimed the lives of 14 astronauts.

The shuttle didn’t reach for the stars it was a transport vehicle, ferrying low-orbit infrastructure for the Space Station and Hubble.

As a result, the viewing public tended to remember the programme’s spectacular failures more than its understated successes. The Hubble repair mission was a feel-good event, but the explosion of Challenger and the disintegration of Columbia are images seared on the brain.

Suffocating bureaucracy

NASA boosters spoke publicly of the agency’s legacy of successes. Privately, they talked of suffocating bureaucracy and a lack of vision.

The shuttle was more a product of the latter than the former, a massive, space-faring compromise.

After watching the Atlantis touch down on its final mission, its similarity to a gigantic albatross hung around America’s neck was hard to miss.

For all that, the final touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center landing strip was a nice moment.

As the Atlantis descended, the International Space Station cut across the sky in a single piercing dot of yellow.

In the twilight gloom, the Atlantis touched down, its vapour contrails from the upper atmosphere illuminated from below by 16 massive xenon lights.

The brakes hit, the chute deployed, and this 30-year experiment in manned spaceflight finally rolled to a screeching halt.

Sometimes, even an albatross can be beautiful.

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