Final Landing Of Atlantis on Thursday; Is SpaceX The New Option After NASA’s Space Shuttle Program? [Updated]

With Atlantis landing tomorrow, i.e. the 19th of July, 2011, the space shuttle program comes to an end. This is really the final hurrah!

NASA has cleared STS-135 for the landing tomorrow. Today, NASA mission managers performed a last minute inspection of the vital components of the space shuttle, including the all-important heat shield. No one would want a re-run of Columbia and NASA found that the heat resistant tiles were all in good condition. The space shuttle will return to Earth after a 12-day mission, during which it provided last touches to the International Space Station. The landing is expected to be at 5:56 AM EST or 9:56 AM GMT at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlantis launched on 8th July, 2011.

Weather seems to favour NASA as there are no forecasts of cloudy skies or rain. Should Atlantis miss this window, due to rain or other unforeseen factors, it will have another chance during a second window, which will open up at 7:32 AM EST. The options do not end there Atlantis will even be able to land on Friday, should it not be able to do so on Thursday.

Atlantis Launch (Photo: NASA)

The question on everyone’s mind is this: What next? NASA will have no rockets to put astronauts in space for a while now. During the years 2014 2016, it will hitch rides on Russian rockets as part of a $763 million contract. There are 12 flights planned in the agreement.

NASA hopes that it will gain a space shuttle capable of carrying a crew by the end of 2016, thanks to one of the four private companies that NASA’s been bottle-feeding with cash. Of the four, SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies) leads the pack followed by others like Blue Origin, the Boeing Company and the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The SpaceX arsenal

SpaceX has already demonstrated its capability with numerous successful test-flights of the Falcon-9 rocket, which it has built. It has also launched its own space capsule, called Dragon, from the Kennedy Space Center.

This seems to be the future, as the sun sets on one of the most ambitious projects in human history. Rosy picture? Only time will tell.

Update:

Atlantis, STS-135, lands for the last time!

Atlantis landed without a hitch during the first window itself right on time at 5:57 AM (EST) at the Kennedy Space Center. This ends the majestic space shuttle program.

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