by Emma Dunn
The US Space Shuttle Atlantis has docked with the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time.
Atlantis’ launch was witnessed on Friday by 40,000 on site guests at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, and thousands more who watched via live stream on the NASA website.
It is taking four astronauts on a twelve day mission to deliver vital supplies to the International Space Station and carry out essential repairs. Among the shuttle’s cargo is 3.5 tonnes of food, enough to feed the six resident astronauts on board the ISS for a year.
The shuttle will spend at least seven days at the international space station before returning to earth and retiring with the rest of NASA’s space shuttle fleet.
This is NASA’s final space shuttle mission. The first space shuttle launched on the 12th April 1981, manned by astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen. Since then, there has been 135 space shuttle missions, which have taken 355 astronauts into space and covered a distance of over 870 million kilometres.
The beginning of the end for the shuttle programme occurred in 2003, when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry, killing all seven crew members on board.
As a result, safety concerns mounted pressure to end the shuttle programme. Indeed, in 2004, George W Bush announced that the shuttle programme would come to an end.
When the Atlantis returns to Earth around the 20th July, it will be put on display at the Kennedy Space Centre visitor complex.
NASA will now have to rely on privately funded robotic spacecraft to make deliveries to the international space station.
However, this isn’t the end for American Space Programme in its entirety. Once the shuttle programme concludes, NASA will begin work on a capsule that will further deep space exploration. In addition, President Barack Obama wants astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and into an orbit around Mars by 2035.
This isn’t the end for the International Space Station either, which NASA intends to keep functional until at least 2020.
So while the space shuttle programme is ending, mankind’s exploration of “The Final Frontier” marches on.