Last Flight for Atlantis Begins Tomorrow

Last Flight for Atlantis Begins Tomorrow

Absent congressional action to delay the end of the space shuttle program, the Atlantis orbiter will make its final flight to orbit at 2:20 pm EDT tomorrow. The weather forecast for the STS-132 launch is 70% favorable. The 12-day mission will take a Russian mini research module and other equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

Under the current plan, only two more shuttle flights remain: STS-133 (Discovery) in September and STS-134 (Endeavour) in November.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and other members of Congress are seeking to extend the timeframe for those two remaining flights and perhaps add one more in order to shorten the gap between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of a new U.S. government or commercial system to take astronauts to low Earth orbit. Estimates of the duration of that gap vary depending on assumptions about how quickly the commercial sector could build, test, and certify a new spacecraft for launching people into space or, for those who still hope to reverse the President’s decision to cancel the Constellation program, when a “full up” version of Orion and its Ares 1 launcher could be ready. Most agree that it will be at least a 4-year gap. The only ways to shorten the gap are to extend the period of time the shuttle flies, or try to accelerate development of a new system.

The gap is a result of decisions made during President George W. Bush’s tenure, not President Obama’s, but the Bush Administration proposed to replace the shuttle with the Ares/Orion system. The Bush plan envisioned a 4-year gap. President Obama wants to cancel Ares and reformulate the Orion spacecraft into a “lifeboat” that could only bring people back from the ISS in an emergency (it would be launched to ISS empty). Instead, the President plans to subsidize the commercial sector to build the next U.S. human spaceflight system, with 2015 as a target for when it would become available. Many in the space community are skeptical that the commercial sector could meet that schedule, but SpaceX President Elon Musk insists that he could have a crew version of his Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle ready three years after obtaining a NASA contract.

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