Shuttle era ends after 30 years
22 July 2011
The 135th and final Shuttle mission blasted off from Florida on 8 July, carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). More than 750,000 people watched the start of the historic mission. After Atlantis returns, the world’s only reusable spacecraft will be moved to museums.
30 years after the Shuttle era began, the United States will no longer be able to carry its astronauts into space. Several private companies have begun to develop capsules and rockets that will be able to deliver crews to the ISS. However, these are unlikely to become operational until 2015 at the earliest. Looking further ahead, the US is planning to build a powerful new rocket that will be able to carry a large crewed spacecraft to the ISS and beyond – much like the Apollo spacecraft that took men to the Moon.
Meanwhile, the United States, Europe and most other countries will be relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly their astronauts to and from the Station. The Soyuz made its first flight in 1967. Since then, it has been upgraded many times, but the overall design is still the same.
During the launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the crew of three sits inside a small cabin. On reaching orbit, they can move into a second module. A service module at the rear carries the main engine, control systems and oxygen supply. Only the crew cabin returns to Earth, hanging beneath a large parachute.
The only other country able to send people into space is China. Development of the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft, which is very similar in design to the Soyuz, began in the 1990s. Since then, Chinese crews have flown three times to Earth orbit. Later this year, a Shenzhou is expected to dock with a new unmanned module known as Tiangong. Looking further ahead, India and Iran also have plans to become spacefaring nations.