Or as Frank Sinatra nearly sang –
And now the end is near and so we face the final countdown
OK enough songs. Sadly after 30 years and 135 missions the final space shuttle launches on Friday. It seems hard to think of the shuttle as anything but modern and the moon landings as anything other than ancient but the commander of the first shuttle mission was John Young the commander of Apollo 16 and the ninth man to walk on the moon. He flew in space as early as the third Gemini mission in 1965 and became the first man to operate a computer in space and later the first man to go to space 6 times.
This mission was a very late addition to the schedule and effectively what NASA has done is filled the shuttle with as much equipment and supplies as it will hold. Most of this is contained in a giant tin can called the Leonardo multi-purpose logistics module which has been used as shipping container on a number of missions. Normally it is removed from the shuttle payload bay at the start of each mission and docked to the station then astronauts spend days removing the contents by hand and stowing them on the International Space Station. The Leonardo module has now been heavily modified so that it can be left docked at the end of this mission and will become a permanent store room for the ISS.
We have become used to shuttle mission going to the ISS and we almost accept now that all it has ever done is literally shuttle back and forth to the station. However it should be remembered that it went to the Russian Mir space station about a dozen times and it also carried out 4 upgrade missions to the Hubble space telescope including the original mission where its crew were able to correct the fault in the lens which had caused all the pictures from Hubble to be blurry. Must be the most expensive optician’s appointment in history. There have also been satellites launched from the payload bay in orbit. NASA has a section on their site that gives details every shuttle mission which is a great source of information for the insomniacs amongst us.
It is well known that 14 astronauts died in the Challenger and Columbia accidents and as well as the personal tragedies these accidents resulted in NASA taking a much more cautious approach which resulted in fewer flights per year than would have happened otherwise. It also meant that the need to build and service the station went from being the main focus of the shuttle program to being almost the only thing on the schedule. Had those accidents not happened it would have been interesting to see what other uses would have been found for the shuttle had it been able to launch a mission a month.
The important information is that the launch is scheduled for 11:26am Eastern / 4:26pm UK. We all know that NASA schedules are written in very lightly in pencil so keep an eye on NASA’s mission page or Spaceflightnow’s mission status page. I realise this post is a bit earlier than previous shuttle posts but I want people to be aware that the launch is happening because if you miss this one you won’t get another chance. I will put comments on this post as the week progresses with any relevant new information.