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Atlantis off on NASA's third-to-last shuttle flight

world Updated: May 15, 2010 09:20 IST

Reuters
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The space shuttle Atlantis and six veteran astronauts blasted off on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center to deliver a Russian module and spare parts to the International Space Station.

The launch was the last scheduled for Atlantis, and the third-to-last for the shuttle program. NASA is retiring the shuttle fleet, which began flying in 1981, due to cost and safety issues.

Atlantis thundered off its seaside pad at 2:20 p.m. EDT (1820 GMT), riding atop a flame-tipped column of smoke as it soared over the Atlantic Ocean. The ship is headed toward an orbital rendezvous with the space station 220 miles (350 km) above Earth. Docking is scheduled for Sunday.

"We wish you good luck, God speed and have a little fun up there," NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach told Atlantis Commander Ken Ham.

"If you don't mind, we will take her out of the barn and make a few more laps around the planet," Ham answered.

The crew showed up for their pre-launch breakfast clad in matching blue paisley smoking jackets, lending a sense of formality to Atlantis' final voyage.

The spaceship carries a small laboratory and docking compartment that will be attached to the Russian side of the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations nearing completion after more than a decade of construction.

The Mini Research Module is nicknamed "Rassvet" -- Russian for dawn -- and shares Atlantis' payload bay with a cargo carrier loaded with batteries, a spare communications antenna and an attachment for the station's Canadian-built robotic crane.

NASA wants to stock the station with as many spare parts as possible before turning over cargo resupply to smaller and less capable ships run by Russia, Europe and Japan.

To help get the station ready for operations after the shuttles are retired, the Atlantis astronauts plan to swap out six 365-pound (166 kg) solar array batteries on the station's main power truss, a task that will take the better part of two spacewalks.

Another spacewalk is to be devoted to installing a second communications antenna to the station's truss.
After Atlantis returns, NASA plans just two more trips to the space station with its shuttles.

Discovery is targeted for launch in September with spare parts and equipment. Endeavour is due to launch in November carrying a $2 billion, multinational particle detector known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.

Atlantis is flying its 32nd mission since it was put into service in 1985 and has one final assignment on its schedule: to remain on standby in case the last shuttle crew needs a rescue.

MAYBE ONE MORE
NASA may yet change its mind and send Atlantis on one more flight to deliver additional supplies to make the space station more livable. They will know in June if the United States wants to spend an additional $600 million to $1 billion to keep the shuttle program going into 2011 for that extra flight.

If so that launch would take place in June 2011, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space flight.

Friday's launch on a clear and sunny afternoon was among the most trouble-free in shuttle history, NASA said.

"Atlantis is telling us, 'Please use me again. I'm capable ... I worked exactly as planned,'" said Alexei Krasnov, director of piloted space programs with Russia's Federal Space Agency, who attended the launch.

What will follow the shuttles is not yet known.

President Barack Obama has proposed investing in new propulsion technologies and heavy-lifting rockets, with the interim goal of visiting an asteroid and a long-term goal of landing astronauts on Mars.

He supports development of commercial space taxis to take over the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station, and supports keeping the station flying beyond its scheduled retirement in 2016.

Russia is counting on that. "We're going to keep the station active to 2020," Krasnov said.

That would boost the partners' return on investment by allowing several more years of scientific research.

In addition to Ham, the Atlantis crew includes pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli; flight engineer Michael Good; and mission specialists Stephen Bowen, Garrett Reisman and Piers Sellers. All are making their second spaceflights, expect Sellers, a British-born astronaut flying for the third time.