At 11:29 a.m. on Friday, July 8, 2011, Atlantis blasted into space for the last time. This NASA mission is the "final chapter in a 30-year story of dazzling triumphs, shattering tragedy and, ultimately, unfulfilled expectations" (Marcia Dunn, AP). There were approximately a million people present to watch the beginning of the 135th shuttle mission.
Atlantis and four astronauts took a year's supply of critical items to the International Space Station. After orbiting for twelve days, the shuttle is schedule to return on July 20, 2011, with a load of trash. Atlantis is scheduled to be on display at the Kennedy Space Center after it returns.
There appears to be a plan to continue some kind of space program because NASA Administrator Charles Bolden reportedly told the launch control team that there is another program to get under way after the end of this mission. There also appears to be a long-time NASA goal to fly to an asteroid and possibly to Mars, but apparently it will be three to five years before more astronauts lift off from earth again.
I feel some sadness knowing that our space program has apparently been gutted or at least mothballed for a few years. Americans were not the first to go into space, but we were the first to land on the moon. Landing on the moon is considered to be a major accomplishment in the history of space exploration. During a 1961 mission statement before the U.S. Congress in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Apollo 11 fulfill JFK's goal of reaching the Moon before the end of the 1960s and before the Soviet Union could do so. The goal of landing on the Moon united the nation in a common mission.
Apollo 11, the fifth manned mission and the third lunar mission of NASA's Apollo program, launched from Florida on July 16, 1969, with Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. The Lunar Module, known as the "Eagle," landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, with Armstrong and Aldrin on board. Collins continued to orbit the Moon in the Command Module, known as the Columbia.
I joined some friends in California on July 21, 1969, to watch Armstrong take his first step onto the surface of the moon. His first recorded words from the Moon were, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." About twenty minutes later, Aldrin became the second man to walk on the moon.
The Eagle spent a total of 21 hours and 31 minutes on the lunar surface, and the astronauts gathered 47.5 pounds (21.5 kg) of lunar rocks to bring back to Earth. The Columbia landed in the Pacific Ocean with all three astronauts on July 24, 1969. There was much national pride and excitement at our accomplishment.
President Kennedy's goal to put a man on the moon brought many challenges in addition to actually getting there. Clothing had to be specially made in order to protect the astronauts. Tools, etc. had to be as light as possible while capable of doing the necessary jobs. Food was another challenge. The first astronauts had limited kinds of food available to them that consisted of "bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried foods, and semi-liquids squeezed from an aluminum toothpaste-like tube." Tang was one of the first special foods created for space travel. The list of available choices was continually expanding as the NASA food scientists discovered different and better ways to feed the astronauts. By the time Apollo 11 launched into space, Pillsbury as a food supplier had created Space Sticks. The long, chewy sticks, three sticks per day, came in three different flavors and slid through an airtight port located in helmets worn by the astronauts. It was not just the food that had to be created differently, but the packaging had to preserve the food while being light-weight and easy to dispose and capable of being used to help in the reconstitution and preparation of the food.
I am sad to see America's space program put in mothballs.