[Editorial] NASA’s Ambitious Space Shuttle Program: Was It Worth It?

With just a day left before the last flight in NASA’s ambitious space shuttle program, the question many people are asking, or at least ought to be, is this: Was it all worth it?

The uncomfortable questions…

The space shuttle program began immediately after the 1969 Moon landing, an event often deemed as the escalation of the Space Race between USA and erstwhile USSR.
Yes, the space shuttle program was what won it for the Americans; it was a brilliant follow-up of the giant leap of mankind. Yet, the question lingers. Is merely winning the space race compensation enough for an estimated $209 billion spent till the end of 2010? What about the 14 lives lost on two failed manned missions? More importantly, what happened to the initial promise of 50 launches a year, which petered down to an average of no more than 9 annual launches? Was the expenditure of more than double of the estimated $92 billion justified? Thorny questions face NASA, but NASA would rather focus on the future.

Too few?

Figures: The true and the unrealistic ones

Let’s look at the figures a bit more closely. Space launches were supposed to be made weekly, totalling about 50 launches a year. That figure stands at a mere 9 as the program ends a disappointing failure by all accounts. From 1981 (the first launch) till 2010, 133 missions have been launched, bringing the average cost of each launch to a staggering $1.57 billion. What does NASA really have to show for it? What has really been achieved? The argument that we just don’t know the various achievements of NASA falls flat on its face since NASA is not known to be too discreet. Publicity is one thing NASA is good at.

Just one? Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

The reality facing America and the rest of the world is stark: since the 1969 Moon Landing, we’ve been stuck closer to Earth. Sure, there have been repeated Lunar Missions, but has Man gone anywhere new?

In 1969, NASA had presented President Nixon with various proposals, including a space station, which would be a jumping off point for Mars, eventually paving the way for manned space missions to the Red Planet. Also, in the list of suggestions, was a Lunar Landing Base so that return to Earth was no longer necessary. This would have saved huge expenses in the long run, as re-entry is one of the costliest and most dangerous parts of any space mission. Then, there was the shuttle. Nixon ratified just the shuttle, citing lack of funds to support any of the others. The heating up of the Cold War worsened the fund crunch for NASA, as Nixon slashed funds further in 1972, right at a time when things were just beginning to move off of the drawing board. It would be another decade before the first space flight in the mission took place.

Was NASA being unrealistic and not merely ambitious? Could NASA have ever launched 50 flights in a year, after spending years preparing for the Apollo mission? Embellished with tags of being ambitious, safe and cost-efficient when it started out, the shuttle program seems to have failed on all three counts.


But let’s take a more positive look. Who could have dreamt of the International Space Station one and a half decades ago? It is the first habitable place outside Earth and, when NASA started building it in 1998, it promised a lot. True, many of those promises were not kept, but then, in active research, not all promises can be kept. It is an orbiting lab and provides an environment for microgravity experiments, which many believe will foster future research in fields like medicine. It’s one of a kind. Much of the shuttle program has been devoted to building up this unique behemoth.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Ends: Atlantis Launch On Friday

The last of the space shuttle mission flights will take place in two days when space shuttle Atlantis roars off into space for a twelve day sojourn with the International Space Station. It will carry a crew of four members.

The last of the Mohicans

After the recent flight of the Endeavour – its last in which it delivered the multi-billion dollar antimatter detector to the International Space Station, NASA wants to wrap up its space shuttle program with this last flight of Atlantis. STS-135, its mission name, is expected to complete a twelve day mission during which it will deliver spare parts and essential supplies on board the ISS. The launch is scheduled on 8th July, 2011, for 11:26AM EST (or 1526 GMT) off Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Atlantis at Pad 39A. Photo Courtesy: NASA

The space shuttle program, sanctioned by President Nixon, is four decades old, originating in 1969, right after America set foot on the Moon. This was the post-Apollo follow-up and a brilliant foray into space.


As for viewing the launch, NASA expects people numbering more than 75,000 to turn up. The best view will be from the NASA causeway or the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitors’ Center. NASA sells tickets to these spots, but they have been sold out for weeks. If you can shell out $1000 or even $1500 you might be lucky enough to buy a ticket to the Causeway on eBay.


The good news is that the launch will be visible from anywhere nearby provided that your view is not obstructed. Any nearby spot on the Florida space coast will do just fine and it comes for free. Titusville, a mere 12 miles from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), is billed as the premiere spot. It lies just across the Indian River from KSC. Next in line, almost as good, is the port town of Canaveral. The pad is clearly visible from both places.
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For other enthusiasts, who will not be able to make it, NASA TV will offer HD coverage of the entire event just like it did for Endeavour.

NASA is crossing its fingers for this launch, hoping to avoid any sort of embarrassing scrubbing or postponement like the one in Endeavour’s case.

Here’s wishing NASA for a final glorious push. Watch this space for more…

Space Mission:Endeavour Lands On Earth For The Last Time

Endeavour has landed. The last space flight, STS-134, of the youngest shuttle in the NASA fleet, beloved by one and all, came to an end after 16 days in space on the second last mission NASA has planned to the International Space Station. Endeavour can now boast of 25 years of space flight career in which it spent 299 days in space, made 4672 orbits of Earth and covered a staggering 122.8 million miles. The shuttle will now be given pride of place at the California Science Center in Los Angelos.

Endeavour Lands at the Kennedy Space Center at 2:35 AM (Courtesy: NASA)

Endeavour’s Journey

Endeavour has been built to replace Challenger after the tragic fate it suffered in 1986. It made its first voyage into space in 1992, on a mission to grab an errant satellite. The darling child of the NASA fleet also had carried astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993 in an attempt to correct the alignment of the mirror on the Telescope, after it was found that the much vaunted Space Telescope had blurred vision. The mission was a huge success and Hubble has never had to look back since. Incidentally, Endeavour was also the preferred vessel for the first manned flight undertaken to assemble the International Space Station in 1998.

Endeavour landed at 2:35 AM in the midst of complete darkness and cheered on by ground staff and a handful of people who had gathered at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It was an emotional touchdown for all, but especially for Commander Mark Kelly. Kelly’s wife Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is in a rehab center in Houston having suffered a bullet to the head during a mass shooting in Tuscan, Arizona this January. She has since made a miraculous recovery and had in fact attended the Endeavour launch. Kelly has reportedly not called his wife up, since he didn’t want to wake her up so late at night.

What Now?

The emotional scene was slightly buoyed up by the sight of Atlantis being lined up for launch at the launch pad for its last ever flight. Atlantis is due to be launched on the 8th of July tentatively. Discovery, the leader of the fleet, had already been retired in March. It is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution hangar in Washington.

With three out of four shuttles out of operation, NASA is looking for new ones to continue its mission in space. It is also looking at unmanned deep space missions.

Endeavour looks almost too young to retire, but it has done its due. Here’s wishing Endeavour a happy retired life.

Space Mission: Endeavour Launch Finally Scheduled For Monday From Kennedy- UPDATED

Hopefully, this is it! The last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, will take place on Monday, the 16th of May. The launch is scheduled for 08:56 AM, EST, or 12:56 GMT from the Kennedy Space Center.

The flight was originally scheduled on 29th April, at 1947 GMT. It was scrubbed following some technical difficulties with the thermostats.

The mission managers say that they have ‘really high confidence’ in the shuttle and the problem has been fixed. Mike Moses, the mission management team chair said:

In our minds we are good to go and we have no problems expected with this APU heater anymore in this count.

The weather also seems to be co-operating. There is a 70 percent chance that the Kennedy Space Center weather will be co-operative for the launch. However, there may be winds at the emergency landing site and a low cloud ceiling.

You can watch the live coverage, streamed to you in HD, on NASA TV, here. If you’re interested in the schedule, it’s available to the public here.

Endeavour on the launch pad (Courtesy: NASA)

This shuttle launch is crucial and significant for NASA, not only because it is the last of the Endeavour missions, but also because it is the penultimate flight of NASA’s 30 year space shuttle program.

The Obamas met the astronauts shortly after the launch was scrubbed (Courtesy: NASA)

With everything on schedule, and NASA taking a cautious steps, Endeavour is set to make a date with history. It is set to deliver the $2 billion anti-matter hunter, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, to the International Space Station, and complete 16 days in orbit. The mission will also include four space walks to prepare the shuttle for unmanned, ground based control.

It looks promising this time. Hopefully for the final time, from all here at TB, we wish the crew of Endeavour and NASA the very best of luck.


And It’s Off…

The Shuttle launch proceeded without any hitch from the Kennedy Space Center right on schedule. All systems were reported to be operational. In a few hours, on Wednesday, the shuttle will be undergoing the docking procedure with the International Space Station. The anti-matter detector on board, AMS, will be installed either on the next day or the day after. The STORRM  – a laser guided docking procedure – will be tested shortly after docking. The astronauts will be completing spacewalks around this time and after this. All of this will be telecasted live on NASA HD TV.

Photo taken by NASA just after liftoff. (Courtesy: NASA)

The mission is surely off to a good start.


China in Space: China to Setup Own Space Station By Next Year

The Chinese are ready to set foot in space in a big way with their own space station. State run station Xinhua reported that China is planning to initially set up a two-module space-station, named Tiangong-1, as soon as late this year. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace’ in English. The space module unveiling was telecast live on Xinhua.

Screen capture of the live TV broadcast of the unveiling of Tiangong

The station module and the Chinese space vehicle Shenzhou-8 will complete preliminary tests such as docking and orbital rendezvous before going on to the really big plans. The Tiangong-1 weighs a hefty 8.5 tons and is equipped with two docking ports. It is a small step, Chinese officials say, before going into the really big league with Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 manned missions next year. These two missions will be to equip the space station for scientific purposes. The space station is expected to be ready by 2020, when it is expected to approach the status of Skylab, NASA’s first space station launched in 1973. China’s Skylab’ will weigh about 60 tons (Skylab was 77 tons).

Artists impression of what Tiangong will look like. (Courtesy: China Manned Space Engineering Office)

Questions are already rife as to whether the Chinese are trying to compete with the Americans. China denies this, saying that the space station is to just conduct scientific experiments. The space stations will also house military observation equipments.

Dean Cheng, a specialist in China’s military and space capabilities, says that this is merely a completion of Project 921, which was begun in 1992. He also hopes that this will not lead to worse Sino-US relationships.

The Chinese space program is completely indigenously designed, and the Chinese will not initially go into collaboration with any state, out of pride in their self-reliance and their strict emphasis on indigenous innovation’.

China Will Build a Manned Space Station In Next 10 Years

China’s venture into space missions is pretty recent, with the first spacewalk taking place just 3 years ago and the history of Chinese astronauts in orbit less than 10 years old. But with a stronger-than-ever economy and a bid to be the next super power, China is taking a bold step. Chinese authorities announced this week their plan to build a manned space station within next 10 years.

Though the name has not been finalized yet, the station may be called Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace”. The station will weigh 66 tons and would support a crew of three people along with hosting two laboratories for different scientific disciplines including astronomy and biology. The station would have one central module and two science lab modules, with the central module being 60 feet long and the labs around 50 feet each. A part of the preparations, China will send 3 modules in space with the first one being later this year and the last module in 2015.

One of the most interesting observation, however, is the scheduled retiring of ISS (International Space Station) in 2020. If the ISS, sponsored by US, retires as scheduled and the Tiangong goes live as planned, it will be the only manned space station in the orbit. This will give China a great scientific and political advantage over other countries, something which doesn’t usually play well with most developed countries of the world. However, with the long history of space related projects being postponed and even cancelled regularly, we will have to see how this one turns out.

Source PopSci

Space Mission: Endeavour Launch on 29th April, To Carry Anti-Matter Detector Into Space

On the 29th of April, the space shuttle, Endeavour, will liftoff, primarily, to deliver a multi-billion dollar instrument the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station. The liftoff is scheduled for 1947 GMT  from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The date was fixed after a number of delays, mostly related to quality control measures and safety precautions. Endeavour is expected to spend almost 16 days in orbit, carrying astronauts, who will be doing four scheduled space-walks and various mission activities so that the space station and its instruments operate without shuttle support.

The International Space Station

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer:

The device of central importance in this mission is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which weighs about 7 tonnes and costs more than US$2 billion. It is designed to detect signs of anti-matter and dark matter. It will inspect cosmic rays – streams of highly energetic charged particles coming from outer space.

The main component of the AMS is the 1900 kg permanent magnet, which can create a magnetic field more than 3000 times stronger than Earth’s. Scientists insisted on a permanent magnet, rather than a superconducting one, since the former lasts longer even though it is weaker.

Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, principle investigator for the AMS, says:

When we tested the superconducting magnet in a thermal vacuum chamber to simulate space, we found it could only be operated for three years before it needed to get its liquid helium refilled, and there’s really no way to do so without the space shuttle, which has been terminated.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (Courtesy: NASA)

Why the AMS?

This mission needs to be carried out in space, because the most cosmic rays, being charged particles, interact with the atmospheric atoms and are absorbed. Cosmic rays provide scientists with energy scales that cannot be produced in the lab. A particle accelerator can only go so much high up on the energy scale, but cosmic rays have particles, which have huge energies since they were emitted from unimaginably energetic cosmic events.

Physicists are right now baffled by the questions of baryon asymmetry (why should matter dominate anti-matter, even though the equations don’t suggest that?). The AMS hopes to answer, or at least provide clues to, this and many similar questions; scientists are especially hopeful that it will be able to give some hints about dark matter and its role in the expansion in the Universe. Coincidentally, while the AMS hopes to detect anti-helium nuclei, anti-helium has already been detected on Earth, at RHIC, Brookhaven. (Read here) This detection might help calibrate the AMS with higher precision.

NASA had shelved the AMS project for quite a while due to the Columbia disaster in 2003. However, many scientists were keen to get AMS off the ground and into space. It is an international collaborative effort involving 600 physicists from 16 countries. Further, as Ting puts it,

The idea is that if building the International Space Station cost $100 billion, there should really be a good science project there.

Here’s wishing NASA and the Endeavour team the very best for this space mission.