NASA Orbiter Fleet

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Space Shuttle Overview: Atlantis (OV-104)
NASA's fourth space-rated space shuttle, OV-104 "Atlantis," was named after the two-masted boat that served as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966. The boat had a 17-member crew and accommodated up to five scientists who worked in two onboard laboratories, examining water samples and marine life. The crew also used the first electronic sounding devices to map the ocean floor.

Multifunction Electronic Display System in Atlantis' cockpitImage to right: During its second major overhaul, Atlantis received the new Multifunction Electronic Display System, or "glass cockpit." Credit: NASA

Construction of the orbiter Atlantis began on March 3, 1980. Thanks to lessons learned in the construction and testing of orbiters Enterprise, Columbia and Challenger, Atlantis was completed in about half the time in man-hours spent on Columbia. This is largely attributed to the use of large thermal protection blankets on the orbiter's upper body, rather than individual tiles requiring more attention.

Weighing in at 151,315 pounds when it rolled out of the assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., Atlantis was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia. The new orbiter arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 9, 1985, and over the next seven months was prepared for her maiden voyage.

Like her seafaring predecessor, orbiter Atlantis \carried on the spirit of exploration with several important missions of her own. On Oct. 3, 1985, Atlantis launched on her first space flight, STS 51-J, with a classified payload for the U.S. Department of Defense. The vehicle went on to carry four more DOD payloads on later missions.

Shuttle Atlantis launches on mission STS-46Image to left: Riding twin plumes of flame produced by its Solid Rocket Boosters, Space Shuttle Atlantis clears the tower as it launches on mission STS-46. Credit: NASA

Atlantis also served as the on-orbit launch site for many noteworthy spacecraft, including planetary probes Magellan and Galileo, as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. An impressive array of onboard science experiments took place during most missions to further enhance space research in low Earth orbit.

Starting with STS-71, Atlantis pioneered the Shuttle-Mir missions, flying the first seven missions to dock with the Russian space station. When linked, Atlantis and Mir together formed the largest spacecraft in orbit at the time. The missions to Mir included the first on-orbit U.S. crew exchanges, now a common occurrence on the International Space Station. On STS-79, the fourth docking mission, Atlantis ferried astronaut Shannon Lucid back to Earth after her record-setting 188 days in orbit aboard Mir.

In recent years, Atlantis has delivered several vital components to the International Space Station, including the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, as well as the Joint Airlock Quest and multiple sections of the Integrated Truss structure that makes up the station's backbone.

Construction Milestones - OV-104

Jan. 29, 1979 Contract Award
March 30, 1980 Start structural assembly of crew module
Nov. 23, 1981 Start structural assembly of aft-fuselage
June 13, 1983 Wings arrive at Palmdale from Grumman
Dec. 2, 1983 Start of Final Assembly
April 10, 1984 Completed final assembly
March 6, 1985 Rollout from Palmdale
April 3, 1985 Overland transport from Palmdale to Edwards
April 13, 1985 Delivery to Kennedy Space Center
Sept. 12, 1985 Flight Readiness Firing
Oct. 3, 1985 First Flight (STS 51-J)

Upgrades and Features

By early 2005, Atlantis had undergone two overhauls known as Orbiter Maintenance Down Periods. Some of the most significant upgrades and new features included:
  • Installation of the drag chute
  • New plumbing lines and electrical connections configuring the orbiter for extended duration missions
  • New insulation for the main landing gear doors
  • Improved nosewheel steering
  • Preparations for the Mir Orbiter Docking System unit later installed at Kennedy
  • Installation of the International Space Station airlock and Orbiter Docking System
  • Installation of the Multifunction Electronic Display System, or "glass cockpit"
For additional information, visit:
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