THE RETURN from space of the shuttle Endeavour is the penultimate shuttle mission by Nasa. When Atlantis returns from space next month – lift-off is set for July 8 – it will mark the end of the shuttle programme. Nasa’s focus will turn to expeditions to asteroids and Mars.
During the heady days of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union, President Richard Nixon, on January 5, 1972, launched the shuttle programme, announcing that Nasa would develop a reusable space shuttle system.
Unlike the Russian Soyuz spacecraft with limited capacity for return payloads, the Nasa shuttle vehicles were designed with a projected lifespan of 100 launches. The programme has seen its share of tragedies. Challenger exploded in 1986, with the loss of all seven astronauts, and Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven crew members. Despite this, the shuttle programme has been a colossal engineering and scientific achievement.