Ten years ago this week, the Space Shuttle flew its last mission. But that wasn’t the end for the engine that powered it—the powerful RS-25.
May, 2021. The 212-foot-tall rocket, the core stage and final major piece of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS), arrives at Kennedy Space Center. Assembly begins within the towering, iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, which hasn’t seen a human-rated deep space rocket since the end of the Apollo program 50 years ago.
But the SLS isn’t an all-new ride; it’s got some familiar parts. Mounted at the bottom of the center stage are four RS-25 engines supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne. Originally designed in the 1970s, the engines are seasoned, upgraded veterans, with 25 previous Space Shuttle flights among them. The most poignant of the four is engine number 2060, used on July 8, 2011 to launch the shuttle’s final mission, STS-135.
Doug Bradley was at Kennedy Space Center during that final launch, working as a chief engineer for Rocketdyne. “I’ve been to many flights, but it was different for 135,” Bradley tells Popular Mechanics. “It was electric. It was a very emotional flight.”