Whereas up until now the other two shuttles were just hinting to the end of an era for manned space exploration, Atlantis' lift-off will be the last. After it too lands, the shuttle program will head for the history books, opening at the same time what many hope to be a new chapter: landing on Mars and even on an asteroid.
Atlantis is scheduled for departure on July 8, but for now, it is today that will become a historic moment. The two shuttles will be on site, both at the same time, at the NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as one lands and the other is rolled out. The space agency expects thousands to gather and see the two shuttle in such different postures.
"It obviously makes the significance a little high because it’s the last landing for Atlantis and the last scheduled rollout ever," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel was quoted as saying by SPACE.com. "Put those two together, that makes it unique."
After the Atlantis lands, all of NASA's attention will turn towards the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), in essence a capsule that will borrow much of the design of the star ship in the now-canceled Constellation program, the Orion.
Capable of transporting four astronauts for three-week missions, the new ship will also bring them back to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.