March 15, 2012
All the orbiters are currently being decommissioned to be sent to museums. Atlantis will not have far to go, just a few miles down the road to the space center visitor complex. This year during the decommissioning, the VAB has been opened to tours for the first time since the early 70s. It is the last chance anyone has of seeing an orbiter in their "natural habitat".
My first impression was that they are massive. Just fricking huge. After looking it up, it turns out that they are more than 120 feet from nose to tail, nearly 60 feet tall, and have a wingspan of almost 80 feet. When they were loaded for takeoff, they weighed 240,000 pounds. With the external fuel tank and the two solid rocket boosters, the weight that blasted off the pad was around 4,500,000 pounds. Just crazy to see all that weight rocket off into the sky at thousands of miles an hour.
With the end of the shuttle program, came the end of an era in human spaceflight. Currently, the only way for humans to make it into space is in a Russian Soyuz capsule, a tiny 3 person capsule with a design virtually unchanged since the late 1960s. No longer is there the ability to do complex servicing missions on satellites such as Hubble, nor to construct such a thing as the International Space Station. It was a sad day when the shuttle program ended, but now it is up to commercial companies to design and build the space program of the future.