So, who won the space race?

2011-07-21 12:28

Florida – Atlantis touched down for a final time today, ending its last mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and bringing down the curtain on Nasa’s 30-year space shuttle programme.

The shuttle and its four-member US crew cruised home to a predawn landing at Kennedy Space Center at 5.57am (local time), ending an era of human space exploration for the US and leaving Russia as the world’s only taxi to the ISS.

“Atlantis is home, its journey complete. A moment in history to be savoured,” mission control’s commentator in Houston said as the white orbiter, emblazoned with an American flag, rolled to a stop.

Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson praised the thousands of people who worked on the shuttle programme since its first space flight in 1981, saying: “The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world, it has changed the way we view our universe,” he said.

Twin sonic booms were heard over Florida moments before the shuttle glided home to perfect summer weather with clear skies and hardly any wind at the Kennedy Space Center.

Earlier, the crew woke to the song God Bless America, in preparation for the bittersweet end to the storied shuttle career, 42 years after US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

Over the course of the programme, five Nasa shuttles – Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour – have comprised a fleet designed as the world’s first reusable space vehicles.

The remaining space craft will now become museum pieces.

Nasa’s astronaut corps now numbers 60, compared to the 128 employed in 2000, and thousands of people are being laid off from Kennedy Space Center.

But Nasa chiefs say future missions to deep space should revive hope in the US programme.

Yesterday, Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said the space agency was committed to the goals set out by US President Barack Obama to send humans to an asteroid in 2025 and explore Mars by 2030.

Nasa is building a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that it hopes will be able to reach that goal, while it turns over low-orbit space travel and space station servicing to commercial ventures.

A commercial launcher and capsule built by a private corporation in partnership with Nasa may be ready to tote crew members as early as 2015.

Until the private sector fills the void left by the shuttle’s retirement, the world’s astronauts will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the ISS.

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