Good-bye Atlantis, or welcome to the age of reliability

July 21, 2011

I remember watching my first Space Shuttle launch in May 2000, as Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center and headed to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies and replacement gear. The ground literally trembled beneath its awesome power. Each of the two solid rocket boosters had a liftoff thrust of around 13 meganewtons (MN). That's around 3 million pounds-force (lbf). Each.

Yeah. It was awesome. Roar-out-loud awesome.

I remember watching my first Space Shuttle launch in May 2000, as Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center and headed to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies and replacement gear. The ground literally trembled beneath its awesome power. Each of the two solid rocket boosters had a liftoff thrust of around 13 meganewtons (MN). That's around 3 million pounds-force (lbf). Each.

Yeah. It was awesome. Roar-out-loud awesome.

Over the past 30 years, we’ve witnessed the first launch of Columbia, the Challenger disaster, Discovery’s deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, Atlantis docking with Russia’s Mir Space Station, and Endeavour’s first shuttle ISS assembly flight. What a long, strange trip it’s been, indeed.

This morning, the Space Shuttle landed back on Earth for the final time. Mere words don’t do justice to its legacy, but this video (http://gizmodo.com/5823357/watch-30-years-of-the-space-shuttle-in-one-single-launch) is pretty cool.

The Space Shuttle-Mir program, which began just five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, went a long way toward the creation of the ISS, not to mention improving relations between the United States and Russia.

In addition to the Space Shuttle, Russia’s Soyuz rocket and capsule system has taken astronauts to the ISS. Soyuz, which lands on the Earth vertically with the aid of parachutes and now is the only means for traveling to the ISS, is based very closely on the same system that made Yuri Gagarin the first man in orbit 50 years ago (and who can think of him without thinking of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio song about his point of view - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMCkSuaBMbU).

With today’s successful landing of Atlantis, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, declared, "From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability.”

Roskosmos acknowledged the role of the American space program in exploring the cosmos, but it announced the reason why the Soyuz was still flying after the shuttles retired was because of the Soyuz's reliability and cost-efficiency.

Despite foreign criticisms of its spacecrafts’ age, Russia updated to a modernized TMA-M version of the Soyuz this year, which is lighter and replaced the old analog computer with a digital one.

The U.S. Space Shuttle and Russian Soyuz programs have each experienced two disasters – the Columbia explosion in 2003 was the most recent American accident, while the Soyuz-11 capsule depressurized in space 40 years ago.

Older systems of any sort aren’t any less efficient or reliable than newer ones, but let’s take a moment to recognize the achievements of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and to look forward to the future of reliable space exploration, no matter where on Earth it originates.

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