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Atlantis launches the end of an era

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image TS-135 Atlantis blasted off on Friday, July 8, 2011. It was the 135th and final shuttle launch, successfully capping off the 30-year-old space shuttle program. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Photo Gallery - Launch Video at end of article.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER ­— For a launch that was not originally intended to happen, it was flawless. STS-135 Atlantis, the final mission capping the 30-year shuttle program launched successfully at 11:26 a.m. on Friday. Late Sunday morning, the shuttle docked with the International Space Station, greeting the station’s crew of two Americans, three Russians and a Japanese doctor with smiles and hugs.

The shuttle era was to end with the launch of Endeavour in May and Atlantis had been prepared for flight as a rescue vehicle, should something happen to Endeavour. In September of last year, however, Congress and President Obama authorized the funds for the 135th mission. In January, Atlantis was added to NASA’s launch schedule. While shuttles typically carry a crew of up to seven astronauts, STS-135 Atlantis has a crew of only four, consisting of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus. The crew is smaller for a reason — there is no rescue shuttle for Atlantis. Should something happen to the ship during the mission, the crew would remain at the space station until Russian Soyuz rockets could rescue them while on resupply missions.

It could take up to a year to return all of the Atlantis astronauts to earth. Both the U.S. and Russian space agencies, along with the astronauts themselves, are prepared for that. Due to the velocity at which a Soyuz capsule returns to earth, each crewmember must have a custom-built seat liner to provide safe cushioning during re-entry and landing. One seat liner for astronaut Rex Walheim was stowed along with the cargo on Atlantis. The other three liners are in Russia to be carried into space should the need arise.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis was first launched on October 3, 1985. In its 33 missions, it has orbited the earth more than 4,600 times, traveling more than 120 million miles. It was the first shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir, docking seven times in all. It was also the first shuttle to launch an interplanetary probe. According to shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, Atlantis has the lowest incidence of interim problem reports and holds the record for the fastest turnaround between launches, with only 50 days between missions. In May 2009, Atlantis carried a seven-member crew to the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew spent 37 hours on space walks to service and install new equipment on the telescope.

On Monday, Atlantis began to transfer nearly 9,400 pounds of equipment, supplies and food to sustain space operations for the next year. At press time, mission managers at NASA are considering extending the 12-day mission by one additional day. Based on that, Atlantis will return to earth on July 21 with a landing at Kennedy Space Center if the weather in Florida cooperates, or a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California if it does not.

After landing, Atlantis will be decommissioned but will remain on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The exhibit is expected to open in 2013.

FURTHER COVERAGE:

After Atlantis: The future of American Spaceflight

Atlantis: Reporting on history




Observer News: Atlantis - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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