Friday, May 13th 2010 marked a bittersweet end to yet another chapter of the NASA space-exploration odyssey. The Space Shuttle Atlantis, Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-104, is scheduled for its final flight mission, to make a 12-day trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to drop off a Russian Mini-Research Module, battery packs for the station’s truss and dish antennae, do a few spacewalks, and drop off a few other station parts. A relatively anti-climactic mission, in comparison to the intensity that marked NASA’s past.
The flight will be commanded by Ken Ham, who previously visited the ISS in 2008 on the Space Shuttle Discovery, the second of the three still-operative NASA Orbiter Vehicles. The third is the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which was the replacement for the Challenger, and is reportedly scheduled to be decommissioned later this year. By the end of this year, all three of the Shuttles will be decommissioned, and in response to the last Atlantis mission, NASA launch director Mike Leinbach remarked, in stoic fashion, that “It’s the type of thing where when you’re alone and thinking about it, yeah it kind of hits you, but when you’re on console, like me and my launch team, we have a job to do and we’re going to do that job.”
Perhaps this militaristic stoicism is the best sort of response one can muster in the wake left by the now-dated future-oriented optimism propounded by Kennedy at the dawn of the space-exploration era, when he said that we would “go to the moon in this decade [the 1960s] and do the other things…” Well, we’ve done the other things, and now, accomplished scientists and astronauts like Leinbach and his launch team have no choice but to take a dutiful response to the changing of the times.
This weekend, if you want to watch history in the making, look to the stars, where you’ll be able to see both Atlantis and the ISS in the twilight sky, crossing northwest-to-southeast. If you want to know where the ISS is right now, go here and watch it live. And if you want to go into space here, check out Virgin Galactic. You won’t dock with the ISS, but you’ll spend a lot of money anyway.