Today marks a extremely sad moment in US history, the end of the Space Shuttle program. STS135, the mission name for the final shuttle mission of Atlantis, the last shuttle to visit the ISS, was a resounding success. Now, the aging ship is scheduled to be mothballed.
The Space Shuttle program began in 1981, and ran for an impressive thirty years; the longest any space flight program has ever run. The first fully functional shuttle was the Columbia, which launched on 12 April, 1981. This was followed by four more shuttles, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis. The orbiters were built with the purpose of creating a reusable ship that could perform short distance space operations such as launching satellites, performing experiments in space and servicing satellites such as the Hubble Telescope.
Space travel does have massive risks, and this was realized during two missions. On January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed in a horrifying accident, breaking apart 73 seconds into flight causing all seven members of the crew to perish. This disaster put the shuttle program on hold for 32-months and it was discovered that the cause of the accident was due to an O-ring seal failing. Challenger was later replaced by Endeavour.
Seventeen years later, on February 1, 2003, Columbia was also involved in a tragedy, where it broke up on re-entry to the atmosphere, killing all seven members of the crew. The mission was originally delayed 18 times before launch, and when it finally did launch a large piece of foam damaged the thermal tiles that protect the ship from hot gasses, which tragically destroyed the ship.
However, despite the disasters of the Space Shuttle program, it has achieved many great victories in thirty years. Clocking up 135 flights, and a whopping total of 1331 days of flight time. During their lifetimes, the space craft were able to make many achievements such as taking the first American woman to space, refurbishing satellites that were already in orbit, deploying satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope and launching spacecraft like the Magellan to explore Venus.
The Space Shuttle program was always destined to be retired in 2011, but was scheduled to be replaced with Project Constellation which was intended "to gain significant experience in operating away from Earth's environment, develop technologies needed for opening the space frontier, and conduct fundamental science." The destiny of the crafts is now museums across the US, as they are decommissioned and made safe for the public to view over the coming days.
The next space program was already being planned, but unfortunately under the new Obama administration NASA had its funding cut and the project was officially shut down upon signing of the new NASA Authorization act on October 10, 2010. According to the new program, deep space flight may not be possible until 2030 at the earliest.
The Space Shuttle program holds a special place in many hearts worldwide, and will be sorely missed. In the final words of the NASA team from the live feed today, "Job well done, America."