Last shuttle lands – but what next for NASA?
US Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on Thursday, ending an iconic 30 years for NASA and the US space industry and heralding a period of uncertainty for the American space programme.
Atlantis touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, bringing NASA’s space shuttle project to an end after three decades.
It also heralds a period of uncertainty for American manned space flight, at a time when budgets are being slashed and ambitions are being re-examined.
The US astronaut corps – 60 compared with 128 a decade ago - will now have to rely on the Russians to ferry them to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Correspondent Douglas Herbert calls this new reliance somewhat of a “humiliation”.
The shuttle, he says, had begun to take on a “symbolic importance of the great ambitions of the US space programme in another era” and that at the end of its life it was “just a delivery truck taking food and equipment to the ISS – and bringing back the trash.”
NASA Mission specialist Rex Walheim told reporters ahead of Atlantis landing on Thursday that the end of the shuttle programme left NASA “in a kind of a transition period, which is a little bit uncomfortable."
Private companies to fill the void
NASA is now hoping that private companies will take over the role of servicing the space station, and that a commercial launcher will be ready to ferry NASA crews from 2015.
French journalist Frédéric Castel, who spent more than two decades covering the US and European space programmes for AFP and French daily Le Figaro, says he believes looking to the private sector at a time of economic difficulty is a “smart strategy”.
“Private enterprise will undoubtedly come up with smarter and cheaper rockets and bring down the cost of space travel,” he said. “But no one has any idea how long this will take."
“And at the moment there is not one dollar set aside for missions to the moon or to Mars. The budget for the US space programme right now is peanuts. It’s less than they spend on air conditioning for their troops in Iraq.”
Atlantis’ two sister ships have already been decommissioned and are on public view in museums. The fleet’s other two shuttles - Columbia and Challenger - both exploded on their missions, costing the lives of 14 astronauts and billions of dollars.
Atlantis flew 33 missions (of a total of 135 for the whole programme) and clocked up an astonishing 125 million miles of space flight, mostly from repeated orbits around the earth.