Looking back at the space plane’s scientific legacy
Three decades and 135 flights after its first launch, the space shuttle is ending its reign. After the final orbiter, Atlantis, touches down — on a trip scheduled to begin no earlier than July 8 — NASA will officially close the books on the shuttle program. For the near term, the agency will buy seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. For the long term, private businesses are trying to develop ways to fly crews into low-Earth orbit, as NASA focuses on designing a new heavy-lift rocket to take astronauts deeper into space.
Science was never the driving goal for the shuttle, which NASA conceived of as a cheap and routine way to get astronauts and supplies to space. Yet along the way researchers took advantage of the shuttle’s journeys, by having astronauts launch and regularly upgrade the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, for example. Some 2,300 experiments have flown aboard shuttl