Space shuttle Atlantis landed early Thursday morning at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
The touchdown marks not only the end of Atlantis' final flight, but also the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program, which began with Columbia's launch in 1981. Over the last few decades, NASA's space program has witnessed tragedies, such as the Challenger disaster, as well as numerous triumphs, including stunning spacewalks, successful scientific research, and a slew of history-making "firsts," such as sending the first woman to space.
"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," commander Christopher Ferguson said as Atlantis returned to earth.
The retirement of the space shuttle program comes following George Bush's decision in 2004 to cut spending for the space shuttle program to invest in returning to the moon and visiting Mars, the AP wrote in a Q&A about NASA's program.
The AP additionally explains, " President Barack Obama dropped the moon mission. His plan has NASA building a giant rocket to send astronauts to an asteroid, and eventually Mars, while turning over to private companies the job of carrying cargo and astronauts to the space station."
This morning, from 8 am to 9 am EST, AP science reporter Seth Borenstein, who has been covering today's shuttle landing and NASA more broadly, is here to answer any questions you might have about the space program. What was the landing like? What's next? When will we get to Mars? Ask him anything about NASA, its missions, and our future in space.
If you want to ask Seth a question, leave a comment, enter the question in the form below, or tweet your question under the hashtag #shuttlechat.
This is truly a historic day one here at Johnson Space Center where the emotions go from celebratory to mourning. And it will only continue. Tomorrow the Atlantis crew returns to a big welcome party in Houston and I’ll be there. Then comes NASA trying to figure out how to do something new and challenging and live without the shuttles, which will be in museums. My AP colleague aerospace writer Marcia Dunn, who has covered 99 shuttle missions, and I (only a few dozen) will be watching and reporting. Stay tuned.
Question from Joseph Alstat:
Why does the Shuttle make 3 sonic booms upon reentry?
Actually, it’s two. It’s from the shock wave coming off the front end for the first and the tail for the second. It’s one of the best parts of landing especially night ones because the shuttle doesn’t have lights. You can’t see it till it’s pretty much on the landing strip for night landings, but you hear it coming with a boom-boom.
What is the state of the Russian space program? Where is it going? What are their goals?
The Russian space program is just like its signature Soyuz rocket/capsule. It’s steady and reliable from a technical aspect, but not showy. There are financial issues, but have always been since the break up of the USSR. My colleague Peter Leonard wrote about Russia and the post-shuttle era: http://apne.ws/ptRYaw
Question from @catattack91686:
What are some big challenges NASA faces before it can put a man on Mars?
There are many. That mission could be well over a year, maybe three. So NASA has to find ways of handling such long duration flights. It has to either lug a lot of fuel there to get back or find a way of making rocket fuel from the resources on Mars. Mars is far different than the moon. It’s a way bigger challenge. NASA has to come up with rockets to go that far, ships and habitats to live on the way and for astronauts once the get there, greenhouses to grow food there. That’s why most, but not all, plans for Mars missions are taken in stages with either the moon _ or now an asteroid _ as a training stop to prepare for the challenges. President Obama is talking a Mars mission in about 25 years. He said in his lifetime.
Question from @catattack91686:
What will happen to the NASA staffers who worked for the shuttle missions?
Answer: Many, thousands even, workers of NASA and private contractors who work for NASA, have or will soon lose their jobs. Others will be transferred to work other NASA missions, such as the space station or the new rocket or mission to an asteroid. A similar situation happened after Apollo ended in the early 1970s.
Question from @maxwellstrachan:
What would you say to people that point to the space shuttle program as an example of excessive government spending?Answer:
It all depends on your priorities. But here’s what the shuttle cost, what it did, and how the cost compares to other federal spending. I calculated that over 40 years (30 years of flight and 10 years of development) the shuttle cost nearly 0 billion in current dollars. That is far more than NASA promised at the time. http://yhoo.it/jSoZXp But on the other hand, you wouldn’t have the Hubble Space Telescope or many other space probes without the shuttle. And there are other science and technology benefits too. One way to look at it is to compare the spending to other federal spending.
Can you set the scene for those of us who couldn't be there?Answer:
Here at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, there were hundreds of workers outside watching the landing on a jumbo tv screen put on top of a truck. They lined up to get souveniers and autographs from astronauts. I was inside Mission Control, where it was different. Until an hour after landing, it was strictly business. Controllers focused on their terminals. When Atlantis landed, the families in the Mission Control viewing area applauded, but not the controllers themselves. They waited until an hour later, when they handed over control to Kennedy Space Center. Then they laughed, hugged, tossed cigars around and ate a cake decorated with a shuttle. Surprisingly, I saw no tears there this morning.
How have space shuttle launches changed over the years? How does this launch compare to the early launches?Answer:
In one way, this mission was similar to the early ones because it was a crew of only four astronauts. In most missions after the early 1980s, they put six or seven astronauts on board. But in most other ways this was very different. Early launches went in space and did science work or satellite release or repair. For the past dozen years or so nearly every space shuttle flight has been focused on completing the International Space Station.
What are the big budgeting issues for Nasa going forward?
Answer:There are three big budget issues and only one involves human exploration of space. That one is the building of a new heavy lift rocket that will send astronauts out of Earth orbit toward an asteroid or eventually to Mars. No. 2 is the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the fabulous Hubble telescope. It’s way way way overbudget and quite behind schedule. Some in Congress are talking about killing it. And finally the Mars Science Lab which launches this fall has been a big budget buster too. But overall, the main reason to end the shuttle was to use its billions in yearly operations for new exploration.
Should people be concerned about the privatization of shuttle flights?Answer:
It’s more privatization of American astronauts to space because if and when it happens it is more likely to occur in capsules or a mini spaceplane. Some experts are concerned that private space flights are too distant in the future - so America will depend more on Russia until companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin fly their private ships. Those companies hope to be sending astronauts to the space station in just three or four years, but some experts think that’s overly optimistic. However, SpaceX has already done an unmanned launch of a private capsule into orbit, which is a first. Then, there is the issue of safety. Will they be as safe, safer or not as safe as space shuttles? That’s something you really can’t tell until after they fly.
What’s next for Nasa?Answer:
NASA has other things going on. Robotic missions to Pluto, Mars and elsewhere. It’s astronauts will fly to the International Space Station, which it will run until at least 2020, but on first Russian spaceships and then private US ones. But the big thing for NASA is about 15 years away. That’s a planned mission to send astronauts to an asteroid, which would be the first deep space mission ever undertaken by humans. That mission will take about a year and be the first away from Earth’s gravitational influence. It’s daring and difficult. I’ll be writing about that in a few days.
Question from @jbialer:
Do you think the public perception of Nasa will change without any shuttle launches?Answer:
I think the public in general has not been too aware of what has been going on in the space shuttle era, except for a few key flights, such as John Glenn’s return to space and the two return to flight missions after the Challenger and Columbia accidents. I had many people tell me they thought the shuttle flights had already ended before Atlantis launched. I’m not certain how much the shuttle era as a whole captured the public’s imagination. It’s not like Apollo. So it can only change so much from what it has been.
Question from @jbialer:
What was it like attending the last Nasa Shuttle launch? Was it different from past shuttle launches?Answer:
It was more crowded with media, tourists. There was more of a sense of spectacle. The launch itself was about the same, actually with clouds it was gone from view in just 42 seconds, so that was a bit of a downer. Mostly you felt the finality of an era around you.