What is our future in space travel — end of one era, but start of another?

NASA’s space shuttle era officially came to a close on July 21, 2011 at 5:57 am when the space shuttle Atlantis with its crew of four astronauts landed safely at a remote runway of Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This historic incident was watched by a lot of space agency workers and reporters who came out before dawn to witness this memorable moment.

It seemed to be an almost unexpected end to the 30-year-old space travel program. It was a moment of both triumph and melancholy when Atlantis with its four crew astronauts glided to a safe landing in near-darkness after her last visit to the International Space Station, completing the 135th final shuttle flight mission. NASA employees were feeling sad at Kennedy Space Centre as half a century of American dominance in space came to an end.

In its about 30-year history, the space shuttle program has seen various ups and downs. During these years the fleet has taken astronauts on many successful missions­, resulting in great scientific gains. But these successes have been gained at a serious cost. We witnessed the Challenger exploded during launch in 1986. In 2003, the Columbia shuttle broke up during the ride home over Texas. Fourteen lives were lost in these two space shuttle accidents. After the Columbia accident, the shuttles were grounded pending redesigns to take safety measures.

Another incident happened when space shuttle Discovery was supposed to start the space travel once more. A large piece of insulating foam broke free from its external fuel tank, leaving scientists wonderstruck to solve the mystery and the program was grounded again until July 2006, when both the Discovery and Atlantis returned after completing successful missions. Nasa’s shuttles were instrumental in building the International Space Station, and were used to maintain the Hubble telescope.

Hundreds turned out at Kennedy Space Center to witness the swan song landing of the space shuttle Atlantis. An estimated 4,000 shuttle program workers, many of whom were going to lose their jobs due to the fleet’s retirement, gathered to watch live coverage on TV at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

“After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle’s earned its place in history. And it’s come to a final stop,” shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson radioed after Atlantis touched the ground just before dawn.

“There’s a lot of emotion today but one thing’s indisputable: America’s not going to stop exploring,” Chris Ferguson continued in his emotional tone. In fact, his words reaffirmed the faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Now on the spaceship Atlantis and the two other surviving shuttles will become museum relics, like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules and the Wright brothers’ flying machine before them.

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