End of an era: Space Shuttle Atlantis launches on final mission in program

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Friday, July 8, 2011

At 11:29 AM EDT today, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final mission in NASA's Space Shuttle program, STS-135.

Mission patch for STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission.
Image: NASA.
The crew of STS-135 poses for an official portrait.
Image: NASA.

The mission is slated to last 12 days and will deliver parts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), including the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and an experiment, the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), designed to test methods, tools, and technologies required to robotically refuel satellites in space, even those not designed to be serviced.

The launch occurred despite weather concerns at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, United States. Although there was a short two and a half minute hold in the countdown at T-31 seconds while engineers worked out a small glitch, the launch was flawless.

Eight and a half minutes after lifting off for the final time, Atlantis reached its preliminary orbit, travelling over 17,000 miles per hour several hundreds of miles above the Earth.

The crew of STS-135 consists of only four astronauts, the smallest shuttle crew since STS-6 in 1983: Commander Christopher Ferguson, Pilot Douglas Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. STS-135 is the third spaceflight for Ferguson, Magnus, and Walheim, and the second for Hurley.

Futhermore, an iPhone will be the first one to ever be brought into space aboard the flight with an application developed for the Apple smartphone, called SpaceLab for iOS, that is meant to help the astronauts track their scientific results and perhaps one day aid in navigation. The device will be housed inside a small research platform built by the company NanoRacks. The platform will be placed inside the ISS. Along with the iPhone, a flag from the first shuttle mission, STS-1, will be brought along on the flight and left aboard the orbital outpost until the first commercial spaceflight to the station, when NASA astronauts will retrieve it.

An estimated 750,000 people crowded the launch site as Atlantis flexed "its muscles one final time", in the words of NASA ascent commentator Rob Navias.

The first mission of the Space Shuttle program, STS-1, launched on April 12, 1981. Since then, 135 missions over 30 years have been launched. Out of these flights, two involved catastrophic failures, STS-51-L Challenger in January 1986 and STS-107 Columbia in February 2003, both killing all on board.

During the entire shuttle program, 355 people from 16 countries have flown 852 times aboard the Space Shuttle. The five shuttle orbiters have flown 537,114,016 miles (864,401,219 km).

During her career spanning over 26 years, Atlantis flew on 33 flights, including the first shuttle docking to the Russian Mir space station on STS-71 in June 1995, the first launch with a camera mounted on the exterior of the external fuel tank on STS-112 in October 2002, and the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on STS-125 in May 2009.

The final Space Shuttle launch marks the end of an era for NASA and the United States amid uncertainty about the American space program's and NASA's future.

Before the launch, mission commander Christopher Ferguson made a statement conveying his thoughts about the program's end: "The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We're not ending the journey today ... we're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end."


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