Shuttle Atlantis will under go preparations for its final scheduled mission, a 12-day voyage to the International Space Station for the delivery of a Russian made-docking and laboratory module as well as spacewalking upgrades to communications and solar power systems.
On Wednesday, top NASA managers cleared the 25-year-old winged spacecraft for the mission, following a daylong Flight Readiness Review.
The launching of Atlantis from the Kennedy Space Center with a crew of six astronauts is scheduled for May 14 at 2:20 p.m., EDT.
Under current scheduling, Atlantis will lead the space agency’s shuttle fleet into a planned retirement by the end of this year. Discovery’s final flight with supplies for the space station is planned for late September. Endeavour is tentatively scheduled to lift off for the orbital outpost on NASA’s final shuttle mission in late November.
However, NASA has not closed the door on a follow on flight for Atlantis. Upon its return to Earth late this month, Atlantis will be prepared to fly a launch on need, or rescue, mission for the Endeavour flight, which will deliver an astronomical observatory called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the station.
“We like to call this the first, final flight of Atlantis,” joked Ken Ham, the veteran astronaut who will serve as commander of the upcoming mission.
Congress is weighing legislation that would stretch out the shuttle’s retirement or possibly add new missions. The Obama Administration included funds in the proposed 2011 budget to keep the shuttle flying through December. With some careful budgeting, spending support could be stretched through February, said John Shannon, NASA’s shuttle program manager.
But White House support for anything longer appears remote.
“The last planned flight of Atlantis will be treated with a bit of reverence,” said Mike Serafin, the lead NASA flight director for the upcoming mission. “To use a sports analogy, I would liken it to the final season of a champion athlete. When a champion athlete announces his retirement, folks show up in large numbers to show their respect.”
Ham’s crew includes pilot Tony Antonelli; spacewalkers Garrett Reisman, Steve Bowen and Mike Good: as well as robotics officer Piers Sellers.
The mission’s primary payload is the 23-foot-long Russian Mini Research Module 1 called Rassvet, or “Dawn.” The astronauts will hoist the 17,000 pound compartment out of the shuttle’s cargo bay with a robot arm and attach it to an older Russian module on the station. Rassvet will serve as a fourth docking port for the Russian Soyuz crew transport and Progress cargo capsules that regularly come from and return to Earth.
The spacewalkers have trained to work in pairs for the installation of a fragile communications antenna atop the station and a half-dozen new power storage batteries on the oldest of the outpost’s solar modules.