Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center, ending U.S. shuttle program (2)

09:50, July 22, 2011      

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Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlantis touched down for a final time, ending its last mission to the International Space Station and bringing down the curtain on NASA's 30-year space shuttle program. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)

Space shuttles have made great contributions to U.S. space exploration. They allowed astronauts to not only launch satellites, but also grab and repair them and put them back into service. They also allowed NASA to regularly rejuvenate the Hubble Space Telescope, which for 21 years has produced images that are transforming astronomers' understanding of the universe, and enabled the United States and its partners to build the International Space Station.

However, high costs, risks and a policy shift forced the U.S. to quit the program.

NASA originally estimated the program would cost about 90 billion U.S. dollars. However, its actual cost stands at about 200 billion dollars, compared with the 151 billion dollars spent on Apollo, which took Americans to the moon in 1969.

The program has also had its human cost. Seven astronauts perished when Challenger exploded about a minute after launch in 1986. Nearly two decades after the Challenger explosion, a new catastrophe shocked NASA when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated moments before landing in 2003. Based on the rate of deaths per million miles traveled, the space shuttle is 138 times riskier than a passenger jet.

The panel that investigated the 2003 Columbia accident concluded: "It is in the nation's interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible."

The Barack Obama administration wants to spur private companies to get into the space taxi business, freeing NASA to focus on deep space exploration and new technology development.

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