After days of media hype, NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) fell into the Pacific Ocean without — it would seem — having harmed so much as the proverbial fly. The satellite had orbited Earth for 20 years without receiving much public attention. Launched by the space shuttle Discovery in 1991, UARS had quietly gone about its work until its inevitable, inexorable descent hurtled the six-ton satellite into the public spotlight at the very hour of its death.

NASAIn 1958, Congress created NASA, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration. The rationale for America's first venture into outer space was national security: to insure that the country could defend itself against any threat from space. The Soviets appeared to have a head start through Sputnik and similar short space flights. The United States quickly realized the invaluable military benefits of satellites and developed "smart" weapons using geosynchronous communication systems to deliver ordnance precisely. Thus, all the first astronauts were military officers.

With the landing last week of America’s last space shuttle, the nation stands at a critical point in the history of space exploration. For some, the last flight of Atlantis — a mission officially designated as STS-135, was “bittersweet,” as one writer termed it. The landing of Atlantis may presage a difficult era in the “Space Age,” or it may herald the beginning of the end of the government’s virtual monopoly on mankind’s exploration of the heavens.

As the space shuttle Atlantis orbits the earth on its final flight, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is attempting to chart a new course for a federal agency that has often given the impression of being “lost in space.”

As the last flight of NASA’s space shuttle began with a photogenic launch this morning, the future of manned space flight is far from certain. From the first shuttle mission — designated STS-1 — in April 1981, when astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen flew the Columbia, through today’s launch of Atlantis for STS-135, the shuttle program has been the focus of much of the praise and criticism in public analysis of America’s space program. Now, as Atlantis begins its twelve-day mission, the debate about the future of human space flight centers on the role of public and private involvement in such endeavors.

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