HOUSTON — NASA's space shuttle program came to its official end Wednesday, just over a month after the final shuttle mission landed on Earth.
Beginning yesterday, all on-going shuttle related work — which is mostly focused on preparing the three orbiters for their display at museums — will be led by the agency's Space Shuttle Transition and Retirement Office.
To mark the end of the program and to say thank you to its thousands of workers, many of whom are losing their jobs with the shuttle's retirement, NASA hosted employee gatherings at the centers that supported and oversaw the flyout of the shuttle. After similar celebrations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the last of these events took place on Aug. 27 at the "home" of the shuttle program, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"We're here to celebrate an incredible 30 year run," NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden said, addressing the thousands of JSC workers and their families who came out for the "Salute Our Space Shuttle: Foundation for Our Future" celebration. "All of you need to leave here tonight with your chest stuck out as proud as you can be because we have done something that no one else was ever able to do and no one will ever do again." [NASA's Space Shuttle Program In Pictures: A Tribute]
In addition to Bolden, the event included tributes delivered both in-person and by video from space shuttle program managers, astronauts and celebrities. Representatives of the Houston Astros and Aeros sports teams, actor Seth Green, singer Jimmy Buffett, Sesame Street's Elmo, and late night talk show host Jay Leno all offered their thanks for the shuttle.
"Thank you for your dedication, your inspiration and vision on the incredible space shuttle program," Leno said in a video recorded from the set of "The Tonight Show." "For over 30 years, you guys have amazed and educated, opened our eyes to the wonders of space travel and the benefits brought to our everyday lives."
Outgoing shuttle program manager John Shannon, who's now been assigned by Bolden to assess options for the next set of missions beyond Earth orbit, also addressed the shuttle workers — and their families — by video.
"I would like to take this moment to thank the team for all their hard work and dedication over 30 years that has led to a successful conclusion of the space shuttle program. The shuttle program has built the largest space station in history, has revolutionized science with the Hubble Space Telescope and has inspired a generation to dream of space," Shannon said.
"But I would like to especially thank the families of our workers. Your sacrifices have allowed us to be successful. This accomplishment is also a great success for you and thank you," he said.
Flying no more
NASA flew its final three space shuttle missions — one per orbiter remaining in the fleet — earlier this year.
Shuttle Discovery, bound next year for the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia, was retired first in March. Endeavour landed June 1 and is now being prepared for display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Atlantis flew the 135th and final shuttle mission, STS-135, last month. It will be exhibited near where it and all the other shuttles launched and most landed, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
NASA's first two orbiters to fly, Columbia and Challenger, were lost with their crews to in-flight accidents in February 2003 and January 1986 respectively.
"We have to remember two groups of people who are very special to all of us: the STS-51L crew and STS-107 crew. We stand on their shoulders tonight as we celebrate," said Bolden.
To mark the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, Johnson Space Center paused during Saturday's event to retire the orbiters' flags, which were deployed outside the center's headquarters building whenever the shuttles were in orbit. Similar flags were flown and retired during ceremonies at Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center.
Ellen Ochoa, Johnson's deputy director and a four-time shuttle astronaut, led the flag retirement ceremony, which saw representatives from the shuttle program's primary contractors hand off each flag to a Navy honor guard from nearby Ellington Field.
Ochoa paid tribute to each orbiter in the order they first flew as their red, white and blue flags were retired:
- Columbia: "From the day she first arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in March 1979 until the day we lost her over the skies of Texas, Columbia served as the vanguard for the space shuttle program, a beloved reminder of American ingenuity and the invincible human spirit."
- Challenger: "The loss of Challenger and its crew in the piercing cold of that January morning could not and will never diminish the wonder of its brief history, instead reminding us how difficult and unforgiving human spaceflight is and can be and the fortitude of this nation to return to flight safer, wiser and more dedicated than ever."
- Discovery: "The fleet leader in space shuttle program history, Discovery spent a full year in space over its 39 missions. Called upon to visit two space stations, the Hubble Space Telescope and to return Americans to space, Discovery served as the vehicle for some of the most daring missions in shuttle history."
- Atlantis: "By the time it landed on July 21st to complete the space shuttle program's storied 30 year history, Atlantis orbited the Earth 200 times on its 33 missions and entered the record books as the first shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir and the last shuttle to undock from the International Space Station."
- Endeavour: "Endeavour ended its career in the pre-dawn hours on June 1st, lifting the spirits of the nation and the world through its heroics and its contributions to furthering human exploration. During its time in orbit, Endeavour saved the Hubble Space Telescope on the first mission to service the iconic observatory and it also delivered the first U.S. element of the International Space Station to orbit to begin assembly of the complex that is now our national laboratory in space."
Five for Flying
NASA retired the space shuttle to devote its resources to sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, to an asteroid, back to the moon and eventually Mars.
In addition to developing a new multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) designed to take crews outward into the solar system, NASA is soliciting the launch services from four commercially-designed spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
"With the end of the shuttle program, we bring to a close a remarkable chapter in America's history in space and usher in the next extraordinary moment in our nation's story of exploration," Johnson Space Center director and shuttle commander Michael Coats said before introducing the son of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory astrophysicist for one last celebrity tribute.
Better known by his stage name "Five for Fighting," singer John Ondrasik played out the evening, performing solo numbers on guitar and piano including "Superman (It's Not Easy)," "100 Years," and "World," which astronauts used as a soundtrack for a video filmed aboard the International Space Station.
Visit collectSPACE to view videos of celebrities and VIPs thanking NASA's shuttle team as played at Johnson Space Center's "Salute Our Space Shuttle: Foundation for Our Future" celebration.
This article was reprinted with permission from SPACE.com.
Related on SPACE.com: