The last of the space shuttles


As Jim Mahon sat behind his wall of computers last Friday at Santa Monica College's John Drescher Planetarium, he projected slides onto the circular dome overhead, providing a rich history of NASA's Space Shuttle program, which after 30 years is coming to a close.

Mahon is the current caretaker of the John Drescher Planetarium, and he operates the 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. Rocketdyne, the primary contractor for the main engine of NASA's space shuttle, also employed Mahon. By dispensing his vast knowledge of space exploration and NASA history, Mahon gave his audience a glimpse of where the shuttle program began and where it will likely be heading.

Space Shuttle Endeavour was originally scheduled for launch on April 29, but was postponed due to electrical problems and is rescheduled to launch by May 10.  After that launch, there will be only one more flight left: Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is scheduled for a launch on June 28, 2011.

Through the Commercial Crew Development plan, NASA has, since 2009, been looking for private companies to develop technology that will enable human space flight. So far, NASA has awarded almost $270 million to four companies: SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada.

Budget cuts forced NASA to find other options, which started the idea for commercial space flight.  For each astronaut that is sent up, NASA has agreed to pay the companies for the flights. 

Mahon said, "The idea is to get exploration in NASA's hands and get routine access to space into private enterprise's hands."

Until then, NASA will use the modified $753 million International Space Station contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency for crew transportation from 2014 to 2016.  The estimated price per seat will be $63 million.  Companies like SpaceX speculate their seats will cost around $20 million.

Mahon wasn't concerned with NASA losing ground to other countries in space exploration because of NASA's large budget.  He speculated that in the near future, NASA would still have the most impressive program.

Space exploration technology has come a long way since Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 25, 1961 during the Mercury missions.

Following Mercury, the Gemini Program was the stepping-stone for the Apollo Missions.  On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong became the first person on the moon, and space exploration would never be the same.

On April 12, 1981, NASA launched Columbia, their first ever space shuttle.  By the time the Atlantis launches later this summer, NASA will have flown 135 separate space shuttle missions.  

Space shuttles today serve as transportation vessels to the International Space Station, but have also been used to build satellites and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.  These missions are an integral part of learning more about our solar system, galaxy, and universe.

Mahon had mixed feelings towards the end of the shuttle era, "It is an astounding machine.  What you can do with that thing is amazing, but it's way too expensive and not safe enough."  NASA has lost two shuttles during the 30-year history: Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003.

The four remaining shuttles are being retired and shipped off to museums around the country.  Discovery will go to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, while Atlantis is headed to Florida's Kennedy Space Center.  New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum will get the test shuttle Enterprise, and Endeavour will be showcased in Los Angeles at the California Science Center.