Our SpaceFlight Heritage: STS-135 and the end of the beginning
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 11:29 a.m. EDT (15:29 GMT) on July 8, 2011. Unlike most of the shuttle flights that took place after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, STS-135 (the mission’s official designation) was a resupply run, rather than an assembly mission to the International Space Station. It also was the final time that one of the space agency’s orbiters would take to the skies.
Atlantis would remain on orbit until July 21, 2011, a day longer than originally anticipated. While on orbit it delivered supplies to the space station, as well as the Robotic Refueling Mission, TriDAR, and the Picosatellite Solar Cell Testbed 2. Of almost equal importance was the completed experiments and a failed ammonia pump module that the roughly 26-year-old orbiter (at the time of this mission) brought back to Earth.
The mission had the smallest crew of any shuttle mission since April of 1983 – just four astronauts. Veteran shuttle commander Chris Ferguson led the mission, along with Doug Hurley (pilot) and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim rounding out the crew.
Inside Atlantis’ cargo bay was the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) along with a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC). STS-135 marked the only mission where Atlantis carried an MPLM.
The mission was made possible thanks in part to the NASA 2011 authorization act along with a contract extension with United Space Alliance which provided support for both STS-134 and STS-135.
The Shuttle Program actually began in 1972 as part of a two-step effort constituting a reusable spacecraft that would fly to orbit to construct a space station – which would, in turn, be used as a spaceport from which to send crews to the planet Mars.
However, this grand vision was not to be.
After the race to the Moon had been “won” by the United States, America lost interested in space. The Space Agency’s budget was already undergoing cuts. It was decided that NASA could either have the shuttle or station – but not both. They chose the shuttle.
The first of the orbiters, Columbia, took to the skies in April of 1981. For the next seventeen years, the shuttle would be a spacecraft without a destination. With the ever-changing design of Space Station Freedom, Alpha, the International Space Station, the orbiters did not have a place to fly to until 1998 – when the first segments of the station were sent aloft.
This promised to be a new era, one where the shuttles would have a place to fly to (the shuttles had flown to the Russian space station Mir in preparation for the construction of the ISS) – once the orbiters had served as the primary means from which to build the new station. As with most things, money matters and NASA was not considered a priority. The Clinton Administration decided to make the space station an international effort to help lower cost and to keep Russian scientists occupied with peaceful efforts.
Some 16 different nations would be brought onto the project – including Russia. The former Soviet Union demanded a few concessions, one of which was its orbit – 51.65 degrees. While this orbit allows Russia to easily send spacecraft to the ISS, it is not useful in terms of serving as a platform – a spaceport – from which to send missions to distant destinations.
Moreover, with the loss of Columbia in 2003, the shuttle would come to a close when the primary construction of the Space Station was complete. Construction of the ISS was essentially completed with the final flight of NASA’s youngest orbiter, Endeavour, on STS-134. Atlantis, which it had been thought had conducted its final flight with STS-132 would fly one last time – STS-135.
“I got to ride on the Mobile Launcher as we rolled Atlantis out to the launch pad with Fergie (Commander Chris Ferguson) and the rest of the crew; that was a special time as there was only eight or ten of us on the Mobile Launcher,” Michael Leinbach, NASA’s Launch Director for STS-135 told SpaceFlight Insider.
Leinbach stated that he went out to LC-39A and looked up at Atlantis, reflecting on the good that NASA had done for the country. Despite the fact that the program morphed into something other than what it was originally intended to be, there can be little doubt that the shuttles’ legacy is secure.
The Shuttle Program was supposed to be a part of a larger effort to expand humanity’s presence throughout the Solar System – by sending astronauts to Mars. It was meant to be the beginning of a journey outward. However, with the delay of the station, the two accidents the shuttle had encountered, and the requirements placed on the ISS by Russia, STS-135 would be the end of that beginning – and that chapter started to close on this date in spaceflight history. One shuttle veteran shared his thoughts on the fleet’s retirement just prior to the final launch of Atlantis.
“I think we ought to form a chorus with the three remaining orbiters, and, as a fan of country music, I know that Brooks and Dunn have a great song, it’s called: ‘You’re going to miss me when I’m gone’. I believe that is what going is going to happen,” Bob Crippen, the pilot on STS-1 told SpaceFlight Insider during a past interview.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.