A Last Mission for the Shuttle Atlantis

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Pierre Ducharme / Reuters

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on a mission to the International Space Station at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 14, 2010. Six astronauts are aboard Atlantis for a 12-day mission

After 29 years and 132 missions, NASA's space shuttles have logged an impressive list of accomplishments, but there's one thing none of the five ships has done to date: made it to the end of its career alive. If the shuttle Atlantis, which is currently in orbit and is docked to the International Space Station (ISS), can hang on for nine more days and then touch down safely, it will glide into a well-earned retirement, leaving just two shuttles — with one more flight each — in the long and troubled program. What that says for NASA's future is anything but clear, but the current mission is at least off to a good start.

Atlantis has been to space 31 times before — the first in October 1985, when Ronald Reagan had just begun his second term, the Dow Jones average stood below 1,400 and Barack Obama was a 24-year-old college grad just beginning his work as a community organizer. Twenty-five years is an awfully long time for a spacecraft to fly, and Atlantis has made the most of the time it's gotten. It sent the Galileo probe on its way to Jupiter in 1989 and Magellan on its way to Venus in 1990, and it flew the first seven American missions to the Russian space station Mir. Its current mission is a lower-profile delivery run, delivering cargo and the last major module to the nearly complete ISS.

Launched uneventfully on May 14, Atlantis reached and docked with the ISS two days later. Early Monday morning, two members of the six-man crew began the first of three space walks that will be necessary to install a new antenna on the station, swap out some of its batteries and upgrade a manipulator arm. It was the 237th American space walk since Gemini IV's Ed White performed the first one in 1965, and the 144th devoted exclusively to the ISS. The biggest component Atlantis is delivering is a Russian-built pod known as Rassvet (Dawn). Nearly 20 ft. (6 m) long and weighing 11,000 lb. (about 5,000 kg), it will be used for cargo storage and as a docking module for incoming crew and supply vehicles — kind of a mudroom for the massive station.

Whether all the missions, all the money ($50 billion to $100 billion, depending on whose estimates you believe) and all the time that have been devoted to building the ISS have been worth it is a decidedly open question. Even the station's fiercest critics concede that it's an extraordinary machine — one that, when completed, will be 355 ft. (108 m) long and weigh 450 tons, with a 1,000-kilowatt power output and a habitable volume equivalent to the interiors of two Boeing 747s. Nice, but what's it good for?

NASA has been trying to answer that question since Reagan first proposed building a station back in 1984, arguing that a permanently manned orbital outpost could be used for materials manufacture, pharmaceutical experiments, celestial observations and studies of how the human body reacts to weightlessness. But no station that's ever flown — including Russia's Mir and America's Skylab — has returned enough good science to justify all the labor, expense and risk to life that the projects entail. The ISS, which has been aloft and growing since 1998, has done little to advance the case. At most, it will be able to remain in orbit another 10 years, which does not give it a whole lot of time to deliver the riches its advocates promised — especially if maintenance work and unavoidable breakdowns keep the crews too busy to do any real science.

Atlantis' final mission will be followed by similar swan songs for Discovery in September and Endeavour in November — at which point the ISS will be complete and all three surviving orbiters will be mothballed. NASA had been proceeding with plans for what it calls the Constellation program — a pair of new boosters and a new, Apollo-like crew vehicle to carry American astronauts up to the station and into deeper space. But in February, the Obama Administration announced plans to scrap those projects and turn the business of manned flight largely over to the private sector.

That has gone down badly with NASA and Congress, to say nothing of Democrats who wonder why the President would pick a fight with Florida, Texas and Alabama — space states all — just as the party faces a nasty round of midterm elections in November. Just last week, Apollo moon walkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan went before Congress to blast the plan. Space partisans in the Senate, led by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, meanwhile, are mounting a rearguard action to keep Constellation alive. Nelson acknowledged as much to the press when he attended the Atlantis launch last Friday, predicting that in some form or another the program would be saved.

For now, Atlantis' six-man crew — all of whom have flown the shuttle before and all of whom are doing so for the last time — can afford to think about none of this. They have just over a week left in space — and likely in their space careers — and have a lot of maneuvering, spacewalking and hardware-bolting to do before they can undock from the ISS and return home. If the Challenger and Columbia tragedies proved anything, it's that even the smoothest flights can turn deadly fast. It will be a cause for real relief when Atlantis touches down for good — and for some, a cause for real sadness too.