The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off yesterday on its final flight. There are only two more Space Shuttle flights scheduled after this one, apparently, both slated for later this year, after which the entire Shuttle fleet will be retired permanently. ABC News has an interesting article today that you can read HERE about the economic devastation this will cause to the "Space Coast," the area of Florida surrounding the Kennedy Space Center. In addition to people who have worked for decades directly for NASA on the Shuttle program, like any large factory shutdown anywhere this will also have a devastating radiating impact on surrounding small businesses like bars, restaurants and hotels. The article also quotes a few tearful NASA employees who seem to be more bitter than wistful. One notes that the shuttle Atlantis was originally designed to fly 100 missions, but flew only 32.
That quote spurred me to look into the Shuttle program a little more deeply this morning. I was surprised to learn that only six space shuttles were ever built. The first, Enterprise, was designed for test flights only and not for orbital flight, and so is not space-worthy. Of the remaining five, two were destroyed in tragic accidents: Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). That has left only three shuttles in the fleet: Discovery, Atlantis, and the third, Endeavor, which was built from spare parts after the Challenger disaster. The Shuttle program, originally green-lit by President Nixon, has been estimated to have cost a total of $170 billion (inflation adjusted) through early 2008, yielding a cost per flight (up to that time) approaching $1.5 billion. That cost put the bitter tears of these quoted NASA employees in some perspective for me.
In the end the Space Shuttle fleet will have flown only 134 missions (including two more later this year) since it began in 1981, an average of about four and a half a year.