Jun 30th 2011 | from the print edition
IF THE weather holds and there are no unforeseen complications, then early in the morning on July 8th a woman and three men will ascend the launch tower at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, strap themselves into Atlantis, the last operational space shuttle, and, as the engines ignite, wait for the countdown to reach zero. Burning thousands of litres of rocket fuel every second and blasting superheated gas into the water-filled trench beneath the pad, the engines will kick up the vast gouts of steam and smoke that characterise a rocket launch.
Atlantis will rise on a pillar of fire, slowly at first but then faster and faster. As it heads east across the Atlantic, its flight will flatten from vertical to almost horizontal. Around two minutes after launch, the boosters on either side of the shuttle will fall away, followed shortly afterwards by the giant external fuel tank strapped to the spaceship. Eight-and-a-half minutes into the flight and the craft, now travelling at about 27,000kph (17,000mph), will reach orbit and the four astronauts will enjoy the rare privilege of seeing their home planet from space.