The space shuttle Atlantis is set to return to Earth today, ending its final scheduled mission as NASA ponders whether to launch it on one last trip next year.
The spacecraft is scheduled to land at 8:48 a.m. local time at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, following a 12-day trip to the International Space Station. There are no more missions planned for Atlantis, and just two shuttle trips are slated before the program is shut down.
Atlantis will be prepared as a potential rescue vehicle for the final shuttle trip, which is scheduled for no earlier than November. NASA is also considering sending it on a mission to resupply the space station around June of next year.
The space shuttle program was canceled under President George W. Bush’s Constellation plan, which envisioned a return to the moon in a new spacecraft as a steppingstone to further exploration of the solar system.
President Barack Obama in February announced a plan for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that would scrap Constellation and direct the agency to focus instead on developing rocket systems that might eventually take humans into deep space. Private companies would build vessels to carry astronauts into orbit, especially to the space station, under that program.
Obama’s strategy has met with criticism from lawmakers in states with NASA operations, such as Florida and Texas, who say it surrenders leadership in space to other countries.
Extended Funding Sought
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced a bill in March that would extend funding for the shuttle as work continues on the next generation of space vehicles. Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which serves as mission control for U.S. human space flight.
Obama’s budget for NASA, which must be approved by Congress, provides an additional $600 million to Kennedy Space Center for the space shuttle program in case the last missions are delayed until the first quarter of next year.
Atlantis, built by Rockwell International and named after a sailing ship operated for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966, was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in April 1985 and made its first voyage into space in October 1985.
The orbiter was the first to dock with Russia’s Mir space station and carried the U.S. laboratory named Destiny to the International Space Station. It also took the Magellan and Galileo planetary probes into space.
During the latest mission, Atlantis’s crew of six astronauts delivered a new Russian research module to the space station, installed a spare antenna and replaced six new batteries.