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Video from Atlantis shows the ISS before docking  (Source:

  (Source: National Geographic)
With NASA retiring its Space Shuttle fleet, this was an important moment in NASA history, as it may be awhile before another launch takes place

This year has proved to be an important one for NASA, as it has retired two of the three remaining operational orbiters in its Space Shuttle fleet. Space shuttle Discovery made its final mission in February, and Space shuttle Endeavour completed its last jaunt in June. On July 8, the third and final spacecraft, Space shuttle Atlantis, launched into space one last time before its retirement as well. 

Now, NASA is happy to announce that Atlantis made its final docking at the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday. Two hours after docking, the four-person crew, which consists of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Huley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, entered the ISS to hug and take pictures with the six-person crew in the ISS. With NASA retiring its Space Shuttle fleet, this was an important moment in NASA history, as it may be awhile before another launch takes place.

While Atlantis arrived safely to the ISS, the trip up until that point wasn't entirely smooth. Before docking, one of the shuttle's computers failed during a morning power-up. According to Atlantis' Lead Flight Director Kwatsi Alibaruho, the on-off switches need to be flipped on a certain way, otherwise they cause a glitch. The computer was taken offline, allowing the remaining two computers, which work simultaneously for the sake of redundancy, to take over. The shuttle also has two spare computers if needed. 

In addition, Atlantis' mission management Team Leader LeRoy Cain noted that a piece of space junk is expected to come close to the ISS and shuttle on Tuesday, but it is not 100 percent confirmed yet. Cain also was unsure of the size of the piece of space junk, but said that Atlantis could "fire its thrusters to move the station out of the way."

Despite these minor troubles, Atlantis has docked and plans to continue doing what the crew went there to do: resupply the ISS. The 12-day mission (which may now be a 13-day mission due to extra time needed for moving cargo), STS-135, is delivering spare parts, clothes, food and experiments via the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module. The supplies are expected to last through the end of 2012.

Today, the crew is using the station's robotic arm to move the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module out of the shuttle's payload bay and connect it to the ISS to retrieve the cargo. A spacewalk is scheduled for Tuesday, but most of the trip will require the moving of cargo and extra help around the ISS.

While many see the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet as the end, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden assures that NASA is only retiring the "launching-to-orbit business," but has big plans for the future.

"I would encourage the American public to listen to the president," said Bolden. "The president has set the goals: an asteroid in 2025, Mars in 2030. I can't get any more definitive than that."

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By Solandri on 7/11/2011 9:00:33 PM , Rating: 2
Repair and retrieval of a broken satellite in space is mostly a futile endeavor. The bulk of the satellite's expense is in launch costs. A typical LEO communications satellite costs less than $100 million to construct, but about $150-$200 million or more to launch. The shuttle is about $450 million in launch costs, with the total mission (i.e. combined with everything else needed to maintain and operate it) generally topping $1 billion.* Because of orbital differences and fuel requirements, the shuttle can only repair one satellite per mission.

Hence it's almost always cheaper just to launch a second satellite to replace the broken one, rather than launch a manned repair mission. They should have repaired/retrieved a few satellites as proof of concept and for practical experience with the mission, then shelved the concept until we could develop cheaper launch vehicles. Not build an entire launch platform based on the concept.

The primary military mission of the shuttle (retrieval and restocking of film in spy satellites - remember, it was designed in the 1970s) was rendered moot by the digital revolution. From that point on, it pretty much became a white elephant, with people using the sunk costs to justify continuing funding for the program. They are beautiful machines and a triumph of engineering and human ingenuity, but they are an anathema to cost effectiveness.

* Most of the excess cost of the shuttle is due to overoptimistic estimates of how it would perform. The original costs were estimated assuming shuttle flights would become so routine we'd be sending up one a week, with two and sometimes three orbiters in space simultaneously. The idea was that by sharing vehicle prep facilities and personnel and getting turnaround time down to about 1 month per vehicle, we could save money by reusing most of the spacecraft instead of rebuilding it from scratch every launch.

Instead, the shuttles averaged only 4.5 launches per year - fewer than 1/10th the design goal. The prep and personnel costs had to be amortized over an order of magnitude fewer flights, and the cost per flight ballooned to where it was bleeding NASA dry of money.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen

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