Published July 21, 2011
A half-century of America sending Americans into space came to an end Thursday -- and the era of the Soyuz and the cosmonaut began, Russia trumpeted Thursday.
After decades of inspiring millions around the globe, space shuttle Atlantis made a final, picture-perfect touchdown at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. (EST) Thursday morning -- the final rest for the last flight of the mind-bogglingly massive science achievement.
"Job well done, America," mission control told Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley and the thousands watching and listening to the landing in the pre-dawn dark.
Even Russia's space agency -- a long-time partner in space flight and begrudging bedfellow for NASA -- had to note the historic accomplishments of the U.S. space program, writing in a statement that "mankind acknowledges the role of American spaceships in exploring the cosmos."
So long -- and thanks for the help, the statement seemed to read.
"From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability," the Russian space agency Roskosmos said.
With the last flight of NASA's storied space shuttles, the only way for America to send men and supplies into space is Russia's Soyuz craft -- a far simpler, less glamorous rocket that has changed little since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit in 1961.
Alan Shepard followed close on his heels, becoming the second person -- and the first American -- in space mere months later.
Though simpler, the Soyuz craft is a great drain on NASA funds: Russia charges the space agency up to $63 million per seat on its spacecraft.
As the shuttle program came to an end, Roskosmos touted the virtues of the Soyuz spacecraft, which lands vertically with the aid of parachutes after leaving orbit, noted a story by the AFP news service. There is a simple answer to why the Soyuz was still flying after the shuttles retired, according to Roskosmos -- "reliability and not to mention cost efficiency."
It lashed out at what it said were foreign media descriptions of the Soyuz as old spaceships, saying the design was constantly being modernized.
But can these "modernization" efforts keep pace with the next-generation fleets even now being built by American companies?
Several private companies are currently vying to build the new spacecraft NASA will need for future cargo runs and astronaut ferry flights, with NASA paying out tens of million to help fuel their efforts -- part of the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev2) program. The front-runner hopes to make its first shipment of supplies as early as the end of this year.
The four companies leading the push: Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., which won $22 million from NASA; Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo., which was awarded $80 million; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., which got $75 million; and Boeing of Houston, which received $92.3 million.
SpaceX, which is the only company of the four that has already launched a test spacecraft into orbit, is working on building a launch abort system for its vehicle, which is a requirement for manned flight.
Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada Corp. is hard at work on the Dream Chaser, a private spaceplane that looks much like a miniature version of the space shuttle. And Boeing recently announced an agreement with NASA to investigate the use of its Atlas V rockets to launch astronauts into space.
Despite the flurry of activity at private companies, the end of the NASA's space shuttle era is a bittersweet one for most involved.
"Having fired the imaginations of a generation, a ship like no other, its place in history secured, the space shuttle pulls into port for the last time -- its voyage at an end," reported mission control as Atlantis landed.
"It’s been 30 great years for the Space Shuttle program," said Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, in a statement on the landing.
"With this venerable space vehicle retired, it’s on to the next adventure."