Remembering the Final Space Shuttle Mission

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final mission of the Space Shuttle (STS) program. The mission was designated STS-135.

That final mission carried the smallest shuttle crew since STS-6 in 1983—just four astronauts. They were Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim.

They were sent up to deliver over 11,600 pounds of equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This trip was vital to the ISS, because the end of the Shuttle program meant the end of NASA's ability to deliver heavy payloads to orbit. After the Shuttle, NASA had to rely on commercial launches (not yet in full swing in 2011) and international partners. (Shown at the top of this post is Mission Specialist in the "cupola" of the ISS, observing Earth, while Atlantis was docked with the space station.)

President Obama and the First Family stand beneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis prior to its final flight.
President Obama and the First Family stand beneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis prior to its final flight.
NASA // Public Domain

STS-135 was a minor media sensation, with the Obama family visiting Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch, President Obama meeting the crew at the White House, and the crew appearing on The Colbert Report. The Empire State Building was lit in red, white, and blue on July 20 in tribute to the Shuttle program.

Stephen Colbert salutes the crew of STS-135 on The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert salutes the crew of STS-135 on The Colbert Report.
NASA // Public Domain

In line with NASA tradition, STS-135 received some notable wakeup calls during the mission. Some of the biggies included messages recorded by Beyoncé, Paul McCartney, Michael Stipe, and Elton John, preceding their songs (including a brief a capella version of REM's "Man On the Moon" by Stipe). On the Shuttle's last wakeup call, CAPCOM played "God Bless America" as performed by Kate Smith. It was introduced by astronaut Shannon Lucid. It really was the end of an era.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time.
Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time.
NASA // Public Domain

STS-135 ended when Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2011. Today, Atlantis remains on display at Kennedy. Of the original five Space Shuttles, it is one of three that remain intact. Discovery is on display in Virginia, and Endeavour is in Los Angeles.

New British Coin Featuring a Black Hole Honors Stephen Hawking

The Royal Mint
The Royal Mint

It has been one year since Stephen Hawking’s death, but the theoretical physicist’s life and legacy live on in both time and space. In an effort to immortalize the late scientist, Hawking’s words were beamed toward the nearest black hole last June, and now, he has his very own coin in the UK.

As New Scientist reports, The Royal Mint has created a 50-pence coin featuring a drawing representing a black hole, Stephen Hawking’s name, and an equation he co-created with Jacob Bekenstein to describe the entropy of a black hole. Though Hawking wasn't the first scientist to predict the existence of black holes, he devised mathematical theorems (like the one on the coin) that lent credence to their existence in the universe. He was also the first person to discover that black holes weren’t entirely black because they emit radiation, and are therefore capable of evaporating and disappearing.

Edwina Ellis, who designed the collector's coin, said she was inspired by a lecture Hawking gave in Chile in 2008. “Hawking, at his playful best, invites the audience to contemplate peering into a black hole before diving in,” Ellis said in a statement. “I wanted to fit a big black hole on the tiny coin and wish he was still here chortling at the thought.”

A different Stephen Hawking coin
The Royal Mint

The Royal Mint says the Hawking coin is the first in a new series that celebrates British innovation in science. The coins come in gold proof, silver proof, silver proof piedfort, and “brilliant uncirculated,” and they’re being sold on The Royal Mint’s website (although most are currently sold out). In recent years, UK coins have also commemorated Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

[h/t New Scientist]

First Person on Mars Will Likely be a Woman, Says NASA Boss

NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann at an event in August 2018
NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann at an event in August 2018
Bill Ingalls, NASA via Getty Images

In what is sure to be one giant leap for humankind, the head of NASA has announced that the first astronaut to set foot on Mars is “likely to be” female. As CNN reports, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made the comment while appearing as a guest on a recent episode of Science Friday, a science and technology radio show.

At one point in the conversation, Bridenstine fielded a question from Grab Your Wallet Alliance co-founder Shannon Coulter, who asked in a tweet whether a woman would be involved in the next Moon landing, which could occur in 2028, if NASA gets its wish.

“The answer is absolutely,” Bridenstine answered. “In fact, it’s likely to be a woman—the first next person on the Moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman.”

It is too early to tell which female astronauts might be eligible for the Mars mission, which is tentatively scheduled for the 2030s. However, Bridenstine said the space agency is committed to having a “broad and diverse set of talent.” Currently, 34 percent of active NASA astronauts are women. While the gender gap has not yet been closed, it’s still a significant change from 1978, when six women (including Sally Ride) became the first American female astronauts. In addition, women comprised half of the 2013 astronaut class and five of 12 astronauts in the 2017 class, as well as half of the most recent class of flight directors.

The first all-female spacewalk will take place on March 29, rounding out National Women’s History Month. Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will be assisted by flight directors Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol on the ground during the roughly seven-hour spacewalk. These events typically involve making repairs to the International Space Station—a job that has traditionally been undertaken by men.

[h/t CNN]

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