Shuttle Atlantis is nearing a lift off for the 32nd and likely the last time on Friday, May 14, a strong indication that NASA’s shuttle program is nearing the retirement envisioned by the nation’s top policy makers in the aftermath of the 2003 shuttle Columbia tragedy.
The launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is scheduled for 2:20 p.m. EDT. The six-member crew of Atlantis has trained to deliver a Russian docking module to the International Space Station over a 12-day mission. The astronauts have prepared for three spacewalks to install a spare primary communications antenna and replace a half-dozen power storage batteries on the station’s oldest solar module. Each of the upgrades is intended to ensure space station operations continue well past the shuttle’s retirement following three more missions. The final shuttle journey appears headed toward a lift off in the final weeks of 2010.
The countdown for the upcoming mission of Atlantis gets under way on Tuesday at 4 p.m., EDT.
After Columbia’s loss, a tragedy that claimed the lives of seven astronauts, investigators, the Bush White House and Congress concluded that NASA’s shuttle fleet should fly just long enough to complete the construction of the International Space Station. It was their consensus that it was time for the United States to resume human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, a pursuit that came to an end with the 1972 Apollo 17 flight, the most recent voyage by astronauts to another planetary body.
Later, policy makers decided to add an extra shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.
“This is never going to be routine,” said Jerry Ross, the NASA astronaut who shares the world’s record for the most trips to space, seven. Five of his missions were flown aboard Atlantis.
“It’s very mixed,” said Ross, when asked earlier this month about the sentiments among NASA’s astronauts over the end of the shuttle program. “There is an anticipation over where we should go in the future. There is in some people’s minds a (belief) we ought to continue to operate the vehicle. The shuttle seems to be flying as well as it has ever flown.”
Most recently, President Obama has directed NASA to cancel the Constellation program that was to return astronauts to the moon in favor of a research and development initiative that would lead to an asteroid mission in 2025 and later to missions to Mars. Obama’s plan, which Congress is evaluating, includes a new emphasis on the development of commercial launch systems for the transportation of cargo and astronauts to the space station.
Shuttle Discovery is to follow the Atlantis mission with the delivery of cargo to the space station in late September. Endeavour is slated to carry out the final shuttle flight, the delivery of a space observatory, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, to the space station, in late November.
Upon her return to Earth late this month, Atlantis will be prepared to serve as the rescue shuttle for the Endeavour mission. There is a possibility that NASA could decide to go ahead and launch Atlantis if Endeavour makes a safe return. The “last” final mission of Atlantis, labeled within NASA as STS 135, would deliver additional supplies to the space station with a crew of just four astronauts.
A decision on that prospect would likely be made in June.
Atlantis, named for an ocean going ship operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of Massachusetts, took flight for the first time on Oct. 3, 1985.
The venerable shuttle has since carried 185 passengers into orbit, spent a total of 282 days in space and traveled 115.8 million miles.
Some of Atlantis’s milestone missions include:
* Launchings of the Magellan and Galileo probes to Venus and Jupiter, in May and October of 1989.
* Launching of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, a sibling to the Hubble Space Telescope, for studies of Gamma ray bursts and other energetic phenomena in the distant universe.
* First shuttle visit to Russia’s Mir space station, June and July 1995. The flight cemented post-Cold War cooperation in space between the United States and Russia.
* Launching of Destiny, the U. S. science laboratory to the International Space Station, February 2001. The mission included the 100th American spacewalk.
“I’m kind of hoping we find a way to fly to fly STS 135, and that Atlantis will get one last hoorah,” said Ross, who serves as chief of the vehicle integration test office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The crew preparing to launch aboard Atlantis on Friday shares his sentiments.
“I will definitely bring that space plane back, ready to turn around in the best shape I can,” vowed Ken Ham, the veteran astronaut who will command the mission.