Space shuttle Atlantis rests atop Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center less than 24 hours prior to launch of mission STS-132. (NASA / Jack Pfaller) (Editor's Note – NASA Dryden historian Peter W. Merlin was an eyewitness to space shuttle Atlantis' launch from the Kennedy Space Center on its final scheduled mission. He offers his perspective on the launch and historic highlights on Atlantis.)
Space shuttle Atlantis thundered into orbit May 14 from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on its last scheduled mission, STS-132, the 32nd flight of its 25-year service history. The bittersweet occasion, coming shortly before the shuttle fleet is to be permanently retired, fostered a sense of nostalgia among thousands of NASA and contractor employees who have worked with America's first reusable spacecraft.
Minutes before liftoff, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronaut crew, "I'd like to wish you all good luck and Godspeed, and have some fun out there."
Atlantis was the fourth shuttle orbiter to fly in space, following Columbia in April 1981, Challenger in April 1983, and Discovery in August 1984. The maiden flight of Atlantis took place Oct. 3, 1985, beginning a four-day mission to deploy two military communications satellites. Since then, Atlantis has orbited Earth more than 4,400 times, logging nearly 116 million miles in space.
Just before launch, STS-132 commander Ken Ham expressed his gratitude to "all of the folks out there who have taken care of this bird for a long time."
"If it's OK with you," he added to Leinbach, "we're going to take her out of the barn and take her for a few more laps around the planet."
Ham commands a crew of shuttle veterans including pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli and mission specialists Michael Good, Piers Sellers, Steve Bowen and Garrett Reisman. During the 12-day mission, the astronauts installed the Russian-built MRM-1 mini-research module on the International Space Station as well as additional spare parts including a set of batteries and a dish antenna. Atlantis has visited the ISS 10 times previously.
Following rollback of the Rotating Service Structure on May 13, space shuttle Atlantis undergoes final inspections in preparation for mission STS-132. (NASA / Peter Merlin) Workers at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., will also miss Atlantis. The orbiter has landed at Edwards 13 times, with Dryden personnel serving on the shuttle recovery team that services the orbiter on the runway after touchdown and prepares it for ferrying back to Florida. Daryl Townsend, maintenance manager for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, was hired at Dryden in 1979 and participated in post-landing convoy activities throughout most of the shuttle program.
"The shuttle has a special place for me because I grew up with it," said Townsend. "I'm profoundly sad to see it go."
NASA awarded Rockwell International (now Boeing) a contract to build the orbiter, then known as OV-104, in January 1979. Construction began in March 1980 at the company's facility in Palmdale, Calif., and continued until April 1984.
Atlantis was named after the primary research vessel used by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966. The two-mast, 460-ton ketch was the first U.S. vessel to be used for oceanographic research. NASA flights of the orbiter Atlantis carried on this spirit of exploration with the deployment of the Magellan and Galileo planetary explorer spacecraft in 1989, the Arthur Holley Compton Gamma Ray Observatory in 1991, and voyages to the Russian space station, Mir, and the ISS.
As the shuttle program began to wind down, plans called for retirement of Atlantis in 2008 following a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The orbiter would have remained inside the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center and been maintained in near flight-ready condition, to provide spare parts for the remaining orbiters. NASA managers reversed this decision in 2007, however, with Atlantis assigned two missions previously allocated to either Discovery or Endeavour.
The orbiter is not the only reusable part of the Space Transportation System – the shuttle's official name. The solid rocket boosters, or SRBs, are recovered and refurbished after launch. Booster segments are not always reassembled in their original order and may be used on any mission.
With Tenerife in the Canary Island chain visible at right, space shuttle Atlantis approaches the International Space Station during STS-132 rendezvous and docking operations. (NASA) Some of the rocket components used to launch STS-132 date to earlier Atlantis missions, including its maiden flight, as well as to the very first shuttle flight in April 1981. The SRB segments used for STS-132 represent 17 previous Atlantis flights. There are also components that were flown on 40 other shuttle missions, by the four other shuttle orbiters. One segment that helped loft Atlantis on two previous flights was originally used to launch Columbia on STS-1.
Although STS-132 is the last scheduled flight for Atlantis, the orbiter will be prepared for the possibility of a so-called Launch On Need mission in the unlikely event that Endeavour suffers severe damage during launch on mission STS-134. NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said Atlantis will be readied with a loaded multi-purpose logistics module in its payload bay for use in restocking consumables on the ISS in the event it is called into service as a safe haven for the STS-134 crew.
If a LON mission is not required, Atlantis, her external tank and two solid rocket boosters will have been prepared to nearly flight-ready status. NASA managers have discussed using this prepared and already-funded hardware to fly an additional mission to the ISS in early 2011. This possibility, however, has met with some resistance, since there would be no other shuttle available to provide LON capability. Due to the potential for another Atlantis mission, Ken Ham said his crew jokingly referred to STS-132 as the "first last flight of Atlantis."
In any event, it is clear the orbiter has played a pivotal role in science and space exploration. Following its eventual retirement, Atlantis is slated for public display at an as yet unspecified museum.
› Read Peter's STS-132 blog
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