After 30 years of sending man into the vast unknown, NASA’s space shuttle program is scheduled to come to an end tomorrow, at 11:26am EST. But it may get to live a bit longer, if Mother Nature has anything to say about it. The forecast for Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the last-ever shuttle launch will take place, calls for thunderstorms, which would require the NASA team to push back the launch.
Despite the 70 percent chance of stormy weather, a NASA senior manager tells the Associate Press that they will still push for an on-time liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis, the 135th flight of the program. NASA has until Sunday, July 10, to send Atlantis into space before the mission would be forced to stand down due to an Air Force rocket launch scheduled for next week.
Atlantis’ 12-day mission includes the delivery of 9,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station, which will be used to keep the lab running after the shuttle crew retires.
“All of these supplies are going to be the lifeline to help us extend the period of time we can go on orbit before our commercial providers start flying regularly to ISS. That’s critical to us, to give them the time they need to make sure their vehicles are ready to go fly, finish their development and get their test fights behind them and then start servicing ISS,” space station manager Michael Sufffredini of the Johnson Space Center in Houston tells CNet. “From our perspective, although it doesn’t look very sexy, it’s one of the most important fights that we’ve ever had come to ISS.”
Brevard County officials expect at least 750,000 people to pack into Cape Canaveral and the surrounding area to watch the historic launch. The crowd reportedly includes many former astronauts, including Robert Crippen, who flew Columbia, which made the first-ever space shuttle mission in 1981.
The end of the space shuttle program isn’t only bad news for science enthusiasts. The entire Cape Canaveral area is expected to experience economic hardships due to the NASA cutbacks. When Atlantis returns, an additional 2,000 Kennedy Space Center employees will lose their jobs, bringing the total number of layoffs to nearly 10,000.
All is not lost, however, as the end of the space shuttle program is intended to make room for a new mission to explore deep space. NASA has a wingless spacecraft, dubbed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, already in development. That next-generation spaceship is intended to take astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.