Last space shuttle returns to earth

Space shuttle Atlantis touched down on Thursday, bringing the 30 year-long shuttle programme to a close. Now US astronauts travelling to the International Space Station will have to book tickets on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

These date back to the Soviet era and aren’t as sophisticated as the shuttle but they do have a far better safety record.

Things started out badly for Soyuz on its maiden voyage in 1967 when it smashed into the ground on its return from orbit, klling the sole occupant, cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov. Then after several successful missions, three cosmonauts, Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Victor Patsayev suffocated due to an air leak in 1971

Since then, however, there have been no further casualties on Soyuz missions. Its overall record is four deaths in 120 missions over 40 years. By contrast, the space shuttle has lost 14 astronauts in 120 flights over 25 years.

One problem with Soyuz, though, is limited capacity. It can only carry three cosmonauts and two have to be Russian pilots. Aside from the Chinese Shenzhou craft, about which very little is known except that it is very similar to Soyuz, the best hope for manned spaceflight in the medium-term future is the Klipper.

Designed by Soyuz manufacturers RSC-Energia Corporation, the Klipper builds on Soyuz but adds three more seats, reusable core components and a pair of stubby wings to provide some manouvrability and control when returning to Earth. Klipper’s deveopment is likely to depend on European Space Agency and Japanese funding, which is probably looking less likely in the current recession.

To celebrate the end of an era you can at least take a look at these pics of the space shuttle programme in The Guardian.

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