STS-135 Set to Land Early Thursday Morning

STS-135 Set to Land Early Thursday Morning

As the nation celebrates the anniversary of the United States winning the race to the Moon against the Soviet Union 42 years ago today, NASA is preparing for the end of the space shuttle program early tomorrow morning and reliance on Russia to take Americans into space for an indefinite number of years.

The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday and after a final inspection of the heat protecting tiles on its belly using Canada’s robotic arm, is preparing to land at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) tomorrow morning. A small satellite, PicoSat, was deployed from the shuttle’s cargo bay yesterday as well. The 8-pound satellite will relay data about the performance of its solar cells.

The first landing opportunity at KSC calls for the deorbit burn at 4:49:04 am EDT and landing at 5:56:58 am. The second opportunity has the deorbit burn at 6:25:44 am and landing at 7:32:55 am. Whichever time landing occurs will mark the end of the space shuttle program. The United States does not have a replacement for the shuttle. Under the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA is subsidizing two commercial companies to develop systems to take crews to the ISS as well as developing its own crew transportation system to serve as a backup to the commercial companies and to take astronauts further out into space. The schedules for those development programs are contingent on many factors, particularly available government funding in these austere economic times. When either will be ready is unclear. Until then, NASA will pay Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.

Forty two years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were racing to see who could first send astronauts to the Moon. The United States won that race when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface with Mike Collins orbiting overhead on July 20, 1969. Five more U.S. crews landed on the Moon before the Apollo lunar program ended in 1972.

The Soviets abandoned their human lunar landing program and focused on building space stations in Earth orbit, operating seven of them between 1971 and 2001 (Salyut 1, Salyut 3-7, and Mir). In 1975, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission took place — the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The United States spent the 1970s developing the space shuttle and, beginning in the 1980s, an international space station with Europe, Canada and Japan. In 1993, Russia joined the U.S.-led space station partnership, creating the ISS program. Now, Russia alone has the capability to send astronauts to the ISS (China has launched people into space three times, but is not part of the ISS partnership).

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