Ten years ago today, the space shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time, marking the end of an era for the US space agency NASA. The iconic orbiter that was synonymous with space travel had finally retired.
With no other way to send American astronauts into space, NASA turned to Russia to safely route its astronauts to the International Space Station and vice versa. This partnership flourished for nearly a decade until NASA came up with a new plan: to hire commercial companies to build spacecraft capable of carrying its astronauts.
In this new era of space travel, NASA would no longer build the vehicles, but instead book rides aboard private spacecraft.
To this end, in 2014, the US space agency selected two different companies to build its future space taxis: Elon Musk’s SpaceX and aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Both have built on the legacy of the shuttle program.
Ten years after its last fight, here’s a look back at how the shuttle helped shape our ideas about humans in space from some of the astronauts it carried.
NASA launched its space shuttle after the glory days of the Apollo era. A magnificent machine, the winged craft – which took off like a rocket and landed like a plane – was able to fly multiple times.
In total, NASA sent five of these flying machines into space: Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor (a sixth shuttle, the Enterprise, performed flight tests but never passed the atmosphere. earthly). The fab five orbiter fleet has flown for three decades, changing the way we access space.
During this time, the International Space Station was built, astronauts became more than just military pilots, and many important satellites were launched, including the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.
“The shuttle was truly one of the most unique vehicles ever built,” Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who was the commander of the last shuttle mission, told Al Jazeera.
“Having the ability to stand next to a space shuttle is very special,” added Ferguson, now a Boeing astronaut. “It is essential for the country and for the world to be able to see the things we can do when we think about it. “
Space shuttles flew 135 missions, but launching and maintaining them was very expensive. In contrast, today’s commercial crew vehicles are the most profitable spacecraft NASA has acquired, grossing less than $ 7 billion for two different space systems, according to an analysis of space agency data. American by the nonprofit organization. Planetary society.
By comparison, the space shuttle cost more than $ 27 billion to develop (behind only Apollo) and the shuttles were not without risk, as evidenced by the loss of the Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003.
NASA has decided to embark on a new path, sending its fleet of space emissaries across the country to inspire the next generation of rocket engineers and scientists.
“Human spaceflight has a purpose,” Ferguson said. “We explore, we study, and we also inspire the next generation of people to do amazing things.”
The rise of commercial space travel
Long before the shuttle’s wheels hit the ground on that last mission in 2011, NASA knew it was heading down another path.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the aim of eventually launching humans into space. And Boeing was already a major player in the aerospace industry.
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $ 4.2 billion contract and SpaceX another $ 2.6 billion to embark on a quest to build NASA’s next space taxis.
To this end, NASA has selected a crew of its astronauts to work directly with SpaceX and Boeing and put their expertise to work in building the best manned vehicles possible.
Ferguson joined Boeing after leaving the Astronaut Office and became the first private astronaut. He helped design the Starliner spacecraft, which will launch on its second unmanned mission later this month.
“I wasn’t sure if I would stay in a manned space flight,” Ferguson said. “But having the chance to help design one was just an incredible opportunity. It’s great to see something you helped design take shape.
During the 10-day mission, the craft will fly to the International Space Station, dock, and then return home. The company initially launched its Starliner spacecraft in December 2019, but failed to reach the space station after the vehicle suffered an in-flight anomaly.
SpaceX, which built its Crew Dragon capsule, has launched three astronaut missions to date. The company became the first private spaceflight company to launch humans into orbit, returning human spaceflight to American soil for the first time since 2011.
This flight, called Demo-2, took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020. Two NASA astronauts were strapped inside: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The duo tested the vehicle’s system in flight, even manually controlling the spacecraft as it made its way to the International Space Station.
After a two-month stay at the orbital outpost, the two astronauts returned to Earth, crashing on the Gulf Coast for the first time since the Apollo program.
Their mission was a huge success and proved that NASA’s business partners had what it takes to start sending astronauts on a regular basis. The first operational flight was ordered for November 2020 and included the first international partner, Japan.
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency was quickly joined by two other international partners: Akihiko Hoshide from Japan and Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency.
These two astronauts, along with NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, form the Crew-2 astronaut group that was recently launched to the space station in April 2021.
Ahead of the launch, both Pesquet and Hoshide expressed their enthusiasm.
“For Shane and I, this will be our third spacecraft that we leave Earth with,” Hoshide said at a press briefing. “We look forward to the growl and the G-forces pushing on our chests.”
“I can’t wait to ride on it,” Pesquet said of the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“And see the differences between him and Soyuz”, referring to the Russian spacecraft of choice.
Jan Worner, former Director General of the European Space Agency, expressed ESA’s confidence in SpaceX and the NASA Commercial Crew Program as a whole.
ESA has reserved astronauts for the next two flights, including the Crew-3 mission SpaceX plans to launch in October.
Once Boeing successfully completes its second orbital flight test, the company will launch its first crew. This flight, called CFT-1, is expected to launch later this year.
Running after dreams
Sandy Magnus, a former NASA astronaut who also took part in the last shuttle mission, told Al Jazeera that the vehicles currently launched into space are part of the legacy of the shuttle program.
“You can see the shuttles in the museums and then look at the vehicles they’ve helped inspire to actually launch people,” Magnus said.
Nicole Stott, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle, says she hopes that one day one of NASA’s business partners will also build a craft more similar to the shuttle.
This is because it had capabilities that no other spacecraft currently has, including the ability to service orbiting satellites, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
“The shuttle was really special and had unique capabilities,” Stott told Al Jazeera. “I would love to see another winged orbiter fly someday in the future.”
Luckily for Stott, there is a company working on the design of a space plane. Sierra Nevada Corporation is building a miniature version of the space shuttle called the Dream Chaser.
This burgeoning commercial space company has landed a lucrative contract with NASA that will help send even more cargo to the International Space Station.
NASA opened its second round of commercial freight contracts in 2016, ultimately selecting three companies to deliver the goods: SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada. Each company would be paid to deliver a number of cargo missions to the space station.
SpaceX and Northrop have already started to stick to their deal, while Dream Chaser is still trying to get off the ground.
Similar to the shuttle that inspired its design, the Dream Chaser will launch atop a rocket – in this case, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V or Vulcan Centaur – and land like an airplane on a runway at Kennedy Space Center.
The Dream Chaser will quickly bring some research back to Earth instead of waiting for a dragon return home. If all goes according to plan, the first launch could take place next year.