Shuttle launch of Atlantis marks near-end of program

space shuttle lifts off at dawn on a column of flame

The space shuttle launch today is the final mission for Atlantis as the space shuttle program winds down and Obama starts a new direction for manned spaceflight. Flickr photo.

One of the last remaining shuttle launches today lights up its awesome spectacle Friday. The countdown has begun on the final launch of space shuttle Atlantis. Only two more shuttle launches remain. Space shuttles Discovery and Endeavor will conduct their final missions to complete the International Space Station before the aging fleet of spacecraft is retired for good. The end of space shuttle launch countdowns has sparked a battle between old-school astronauts and a new generation of space entrepreneurs.

Obama’s NASA plan

President Obama’s NASA plan means the shuttle launch, like the one today, will soon be a thing of the past. A new direction for the space program calls for commercial enterprises to take over the lead from government. Aging heroes who walked on the moon predict doom and gloom for U.S. spaceflight with Obama’s NASA plan. However, adventurous billionaires are looking forward to a brighter future for space exploration. What’s more, the U.S. government is broke and taking out a huge cash loan for dealing with an economic meltdown and fighting two wars. For the present, earthbound initiatives are a priority.

Billions up in fire and smoke

The shuttle launch was the most spectacular aspect of an expensive, extremely complex program. The technology is more than 30 years old. If you ask most engineers, they are amazed that only two space shuttles met with disaster in 25 years. According to NASA, the space shuttle Endeavor, built to replace the space shuttle Challenger, which disintegrated reentering the atmosphere in 2003, cost about $1.7 billion. The average cost to launch a space shuttle, not including the rest of its mission, is about $450 million.

Obama NASA funding

Obama’s NASA funding signals a new way of thinking about the future of manned spaceflight. The Obama administration , which aimed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Reuters reports that an independent review found the $108 billion Constellation program was severely underfunded, with no hope of reaching its goal without a $6 billion a year increase in NASA’s $18 billion annual budget. Instead, Obama NASA funding pushes a public/private technology development initiative for an eventual international mission to Mars.

Old schoolers oppose Obama NASA plan

With shuttle launch countdowns winding down, politicians from Florida, Texas and Alabama — which have thousands of jobs tied to the space program — have been crying foul about the president’s plan. The New York Times reports that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, read the president the riot act before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Tuesday. The 80-year-old Armstrong told the committee: “I do not believe that would be in our best interests.” Mr. Cernan also testified Wednesday. He told the senators the space program was on a “slide to mediocrity” and “third-rate stature.”

New schoolers reap Obama NASA funding

Younger space entrepreneurs are excited about the end of the shuttle launch. Obama is pledging $6 billion to encourage private companies to build their own spaceships. PayPal founder Elon Musk has founded SpaceX and plans to fly astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2013. Spacex plans to charge NASA about $20 million per astronaut–a bargain compared with more than $300 million a head it was going to cost NASA under the Bush plan, plus NASA will pay Russia $56 million  for trips on Soyuz rockets in the meantime.

Today’s shuttle launch

The shuttle launch today sends Atlantis on a 12-day mission to deliver a Russian-built addition to the space station that will provide storage space, and a new docking port for the Russian spacecraft will continue to service the station. As reported on eWeek, three spacewalks are planned to stage spare components outside the station, including six spare batteries, an antenna and spare parts for the robotic arm.