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Rupert Cornwell: Atlantis's mission marks end of a magnificent era

Out of America: The final space shuttle flight on Friday will be a turning point for the manned space programme. And the future is looking very uncertain

Unless a tropical storm intervenes and puts everything on hold, 11.26am this Friday may be one of the saddest moments of the year. That is when Atlantis is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida – and after it returns from its 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), no US space shuttle will ever fly again.

Yes, those who know about such things are mostly saying good riddance. First and foremost, they point out, the shuttle has cost too much. Back when he approved the programme in 1971, Richard Nixon was told that the envisaged weekly flights would cost a mere $7m each.

The crafty old devil probably never believed that, but the shuttle would bring thousands of aerospace jobs to key electoral states like California, Texas and Florida; so what the heck? Even so, Nixon could not have imagined that each flight would now cost over $1bn, and that the programme would have devoured over $200bn.

Undoubtedly, expendable launchers for manned flight would have been cheaper – maybe only $150m each. Had Nasa stuck with some form of the Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon, some say there might have been flights to Mars by now.

Probably, one-time vehicles would have been safer too. Space travel is an inherently risky business – but so risky that two of just 135 shuttle missions ended in disaster? And, in both the Challenger accident in 1986 and the disintegration of Columbia over Texas on February 1 2003, Nasa had ample warning of the hazards, but went ahead nonetheless.

And perhaps the most damning argument of all, the shuttle was a compromise: it sought to meet commercial, scientific and military needs all at once. Each could have been achieved more effectively and cheaply had they been tackled separately. In short, the shuttle was a magnificent blind alley.

Technologically, for this non-techie at least, it has never ceased to inspire wonder: a piloted craft blasts into the heavens, orbits the earth, flies back through the atmosphere and lands on a runway like an ordinary plane – and is ready to go again a few weeks later.

Even shuttle critics admit it's the most advanced space vehicle ever built. Nor has it yet reached the end of its intended lifespan. The five shuttles were designed for 100 missions each; instead, they've clocked up only 135 between them – a flight roughly every 10 weeks between Columbia's first mission in April 1981 and Atlantis's swansong this week.

But the shuttle was also a victim of its own success in making space missions so routine. You only noticed a shuttle flight when something went wrong. The Challenger and Columbia catastrophes were "remember-where-you-were-when-you-heard" moments, like the assassination of JFK or the death of Diana. The shuttle's grip on our imagination was only tightened, it must be said, by President Reagan's address to the nation after Challenger exploded on 28 January 1986, words that still bring tears to the eyes. But now the shuttle era is over, to be replaced by ... what exactly?

All that can be said with certainty is that thousands of jobs will be lost in California, Texas and Florida. At least six astronauts have reportedly quit as well; a post-shuttle regime of six-week training stints in Japan, Canada and Russia, followed by six months aboard the ISS doesn't quite have the glamour of Nasa's glory days.

After the Columbia tragedy, no one disputed that big changes were required. Less than a year later, in January 2004, President George W Bush presented his "Vision for Space Exploration", in which the shuttle would be pensioned off and the focus would be on the solar system, under a programme called Constellation.

But the money was never forthcoming, and the agency, not for the first time, was left promising more than it could deliver. First, the Ares rocket, intended to be the workhorse of the project, ran into problems. Then the recession arrived and Constellation was scrapped in its entirety.

What seems to be left, although President Obama has never been very clear on the subject, is something called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a super-shuttle designed to be 10 times safer than the old ones, that would be blasted into space by a new Space Launch System, an upgraded version of the current launch rocket, that will be ready for trials by 2016. But isn't all this merely an update of the shuttle concept, which the experts have told us is the wrong way to go?

America, of course, is not pulling out of space. US missile defence, a descendant of Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defence Initiative, continues – and who knows what projects are afoot at secret air bases in the Nevada desert? But on the non-military side, there will be a gap of least five years. In that time, Russian Soyuz rockets will ferry US astronauts to the ISS; maybe the US private sector will step in, with rockets and space vehicles to carry equipment and people into space.

There's nothing wrong with that; indeed, in these tough economic times, it makes perfect sense. But forgive me if I shed a tear for the amazing shuttle, never again to be seen in the sky.