Clock ticking on last shuttle mission... but also for space centre

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The Independent Online

Dotted across the sprawling campus that is the John F Kennedy Space Centre in Florida are blue and white signs designed to get the thousands of workers here pepped up.

"1 Day to Launch", they declared yesterday, above an image of the space shuttle. But they might have read: "1 Day to Pack up your Bags".

It is 30 years since the first shuttle, Columbia, lifted off from its pad here at Cape Canaveral and opened a new chapter in an American space romance that began 14 years earlier with the Apollo flights. Now those pages are closing. The mission about to be undertaken by the shuttle, Atlantis, will be number 135 and the last. For the first time in half a century, the US will have no means of its own to fire humans to the stars. The shuttle swansong will begin, of course, only when Florida's thundery weather allows.

The launch is scheduled for this morning. But as hundreds of thousands of onlookers swarmed Florida's Space Coast last night to witness it, rain fell heavily and the forecast was ominous. Bad conditions, officials said, presented a 70 per cent chance of delaying today's lift-off until Saturday or Sunday.

Whenever it begins, the last flight of Atlantis will trigger bittersweet emotions here. The voyage, to take supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), marks the conclusion of a wind-down process started in 2004 when President George W Bush ordered the shuttle fleet to be retired. President Barack Obama inherited plans to replace it with the Constellation programme to return to the Moon, but last year he ditched it.

For generations of Americans, Nasa has been an acronym for national pride in the race to breach our planet's bounds. It was a race that initially was spurred by American competition with the Soviets in the depths of the Cold War. Some see irony – if not ignominy – in the reality that mothballing the shuttle will present. For the next several years, any American astronauts deployed to the ISS will have to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

"Right now, we are dependent upon Russia," Mike Griffin, a former Nasa administrator, noted mournfully. "I find that unseemly in the extreme."

And it is not just those signs that will have to be taken away here at the Space Centre. Swathes of employees here – from engineers to welders and even to the guy who drives the huge crawler vehicle used to transport the shuttles from its towering hanger to the pad – will see their careers suddenly come to and end. A few months ago 17,000 people worked here

Weeks after this mission, only about 1,000 will remain.