And then there were two...
After 25 years, 32 successful missions, and more than 120-million miles traveled, space shuttle Atlantis made what's likely to be its last landing yesterday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Of course, being the astute follower of space tech that you are, you knew this already. But did you also know that Atlantis had an uncanny knack for predicting disaster?
Way back in November of 1985, on just its second mission, Atlantis experienced a blow-back of hot gases past the primary O-rings in one of its solid rocket boosters, resulting in serious erosion of said O-ring. NASA noticed the problem, but didn't recognize the danger -- three months later a similar O-ring failure led to the loss of the Challenger and her crew.
Three years later during STS-27, Atlantis' heat shield sustained severe damage from a piece of insulation that broke off of the right solid rocket booster during launch. Since this was a classified mission for the Department of Defense (you know, to handle super secret military stuff), the shuttle's crew was forced to encrypt the images of the damaged tiles it sent back to NASA, which lowered the resolution of the images enough that the ground crew wrote off the damage as a trick of the light. Looking at the clear images onboard the spacecraft, the crew's commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson was so certain of the damage, he remarked that "we are going to die." Fortunately, Atlantis survived reentry, and the ground crew stared in shock at the missing, cracked, and broken tiles while likely getting a serious dose of "I told you so" from the crew. Years later in 2003, the exact same thing happened to the shuttle Columbia on launch; needless to say, her crew wasn't so lucky.
The second-youngest orbiter, named after the world's longest-serving scientific research vessel (the RV Atlantis), first blasted into space on October 3, 1985 on a military mission for the Department of Defense -- yet again to do secret military stuff. Oh, how the times have changed... its final mission saw Atlantis successfully deliver the Russian Mini-Research Module Rassvet to the ISS. She'll be prepped one last time to stand-by as a rescue ship for the upcoming (and final) missions of Endeavor and Discovery, but Atlantis' days in space are likely over. All gussied up with nowhere to go, Atlantis will finally be laid to rest. And yes, we'll shed a tear or two.