Over the last 3 decades, we have all become so accustomed to watching NASA's spectacular shuttle launches, that we often take it for granted. Unfortunately, like all good things this too, has come to an end.
On Friday, July 8th, an estimated million people, some of whom had staked out their spot the night before, gathered to watch as the last of the original five Space Shuttles - Atlantis, launched off on its final mission to the International Space Station. This last NASA workhorse has completed 32 flights, orbited the Earth more than 4,600 times and covered a distance of over 120 million miles, since it was first deployed in October of 1985. If all goes well, this final 33rd flight will add another 5 million miles to its total journey time.
This mission ends not only the career of the Atlantis, but also, of the shuttle program that began about 30 years ago with the launch of Shuttle Columbia. Over the years, the orbiters have helped transport and situate the Hubble Telescope, built the International Space Station and, conducted several experiments that have helped leap-frog some of the world's biggest inventions.
Manned by a skeleton crew of just four astronauts, the shuttle is carrying a year's supplies for the International Space Station's resident astronauts and equipment to install a robotic satellite refueling experiment.
Also on board, are 134 mission patches and pins - One from every shuttle flight, as well as, thousands of bookmarks - All of which will be distributed to school children when the historic flight returns. And, in keeping with modern technology, the shuttle is also carrying with it two iPhones that are loaded with a app called Space Lab, that will help the space station crew track experiments.
The orbiter's return to Earth following its 12-day mission on July 20th, coincides with another historic event - The 42nd anniversary of the first landing on the moon. However, before they return, the astronauts will conduct an intense inspection of the Atlantis, looking for any signs of cracks or holes in its heat-resistant tiles.
This is to ensure that nothing goes wrong on their final return journey to Earth. If there is any doubt at all, they will have to remain put at the International Space Station, until they are able to hitch rides, one at a time, aboard the Russian Soyuz capsule. That's because this is the first time NASA does not have a back-up Shuttle ready to go pick up the astronauts in case of any issues. However, we have a feeling that we are going to witness a perfect final landing by this last functioning icon that has provided us with an amazing 30 years of Space exploration along with some stunning Shuttle launches!