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Monday, November 16,2009

Space shuttle Atlantis sets off on 11-day mission

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space shuttle Atlantis roared into orbit at 2:28 p.m. EST Monday, arching through light clouds to begin an 11-day mission to the International Space Station and bringing the 28-year-old shuttle program one step closer to retirement.

The successful liftoff — one of the most trouble-free in the history of the program — reduces the number of remaining launches to five and marks the first NASA mission completely devoted to stocking the station with spare parts — such as pumps and gyroscopes — so that the floating observatory can continue long past the orbiter's 2010 retirement.

But the launch came amid major worries about NASA's future, as the agency has been told by the White House to consider cutting its 2011 budget by as much as 10 percent. Based on the agency's proposed 2009-2010 budget of $18.7 billion, that would equal roughly $1.87 billion.

That kind of cut would end human spaceflight for at least the next decade — and likely longer — according to a presidential space panel that recommended last month a $3 billion-a-year spending increase so that NASA could run a "meaningful" manned-space program.

"If that's the case, we as a nation need to face the fact that we're not committed to exploration," said former astronaut Leroy Chiao, who served on the 10-member committee led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.

But a senior administration official, who is not authorized to speak on the record, cautioned not to read too much into the proposed reductions. The official said agencies were given "global" instructions to cut their budgets by 5 to 10 percent to help reduce the record $1.4 trillion deficit.

"When the president makes a decision on human spaceflight, he can ignore that," said the official.

President Barack Obama convened the Augustine committee this summer to evaluate NASA's Constellation program, which aims to build new Ares rockets and Orion capsules that could be ready to reach the station by 2015 and return astronauts to the moon by 2020. The committee found that NASA needs up to $3 billion more a year just to return astronauts to the space station by 2017, with a moon mission farther in the future.

With that bleak estimation, any talk of budget cuts sends chills through NASA and Kennedy Space Center, which is set to lose as many as 7,000 jobs when the shuttle is retired. Any further delay in launching a replacement could make the space center more of a ghost town than already expected.

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It just seems like when I was a kid people used to get stoked about a shuttle launch a whole lot more. I remember being at school and they were letting everyone outside to see if we could catch a glimpse of it as it headed up through the skies. People used to get excited. Today I was at work and I mentioned it and no one even knew that it was launching.

Its as if our country has gotten so used to it that now even space travel can seem almost mundane. I guess that’s part of the reason that their calling it quits on the whole space shuttle program. Go back in time and think about why the space program even started in the first place. It was all just to prove that we were more bad ass than the Russians. We wanted our country to get excited about something and bask in the confidence of us kicking ass. The whole space program was purely an ego driven pissing contest. Now that aspect just doesn’t even exist anymore. People are getting bored with it so what real purpose does it serve. Its not like were bringing back the cure for cancer from space or anything like that. Its really just a gigantic waste of money when you come to think about it.

Check out my blog on the Shuttle launch, the future of the program and the lack of excitement surronding it at....