With the final launch of the Atlantis space shuttle, many have been wondering what this means for NASA and the future of American manned spaceflight. The space agency addressed these concerns, claiming the end of the shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. Outlining its program of exploration, technology development and scientific research, NASA said the program will last for years to come.
NASA said it working on capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system and working toward landing humans on Mars. The agency plans to build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.
The agency also will soon announce the design for the heavy-lift Space Launch System that will carry astronauts out of low Earth orbit. It is developing the technologies needed for human exploration of the solar system, including solar electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems. "As a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I'm here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success-and failure is not an option," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told the National Press Club.
NASA is researching ways to design and build aircraft that are safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter and environmentally responsible. Scientists and engineers are also working to create traffic management systems that are safer, more efficient and more flexible, as well as developing technologies that improve routing during flights and enable aircraft to climb to and descend from their cruising altitude without interruption.
"We believe it is possible to build an aircraft that uses less fuel, gives off fewer emissions and is quieter, and we are working on the technologies to create that aircraft. NASA is also part of the government team that is working to develop the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, to be in place by the year 2025," a report on the agency's Website explained. "We will continue to validate new, complex aircraft and air traffic control systems to ensure that they meet extremely high safety levels."
Atlantis is scheduled to launch July 8 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to deliver supplies and experiments to the International Space Station and is the final mission of the space shuttle program. There is at least one first involved with space shuttle Atlantis' STS-135 mission, a flight notable for its lasts: The crew is taking the first iPhone into space to help with experiments aboard the International Space Station.
A Houston company called Odyssey Space Research developed an application for the Apple smartphone that is meant to help the astronauts track their scientific results and perhaps one day aid navigation. The device will be housed inside a small research platform built by NanoRacks. The platform will be placed inside the station. The app, called SpaceLab for iOS, is also available to Earthbound smartphone users to perform the same experiments with the software simulating microgravity.
More than 500 STS-135 mission patches are tucked inside Atlantis for the flight, a common take-along for all shuttle missions, along with 800 small American flags that typically are handed out after a mission as awards and recognitions. When the crew returns, the items will be unpacked from lockers inside the shuttle and returned to the astronauts, who often make personal visits to hand them back to their owners.
The custom of carrying mementoes into space began in the days of the Mercury missions, when an astronaut would take a roll of coins or some other small tokens into space. The Apollo astronauts carried items to the moon and back during their missions. The tradition is not expected to end with the end of the shuttle program: When SpaceX launched its Dragon capsule last year, for instance, it carried commemorative items inside, most notably a wedge of cheese.